What’s the Saffron King without his signature spice? A man in serious improvisational mode, much like the band that Behroush Sharifi used to follow around in his camper-van before he adopted the royal moniker and started peddling spices from his native Iran.
During a dinner at The Occidental last week, in which Sharifi provided the exotic spices that chef Rodney Scruggs incorporated into a French-leaning menu, the Saffron King told the assembled diners about his days of following the Grateful Dead and about how the 2010 trade embargo with Iran has affected his import business.
I had a chance to follow up with the New York-based Sharifi after the dinner and ask him directly how much the embargo has impacted his business.
“It’s ruined my business,” he said flatly, as open as the Deadheads who used to tail their beloved band. “It’s ruined the business as it was...I have a choice. I can either roll over and die or reimagine the business and come back.”
“We’re about to run out of saffron, and it’s 80 percent of my business. Even the remaining 20 percent, we’ve already run out of a number of the other ingredients, and we can’t replace them. We do eventually want to source everything out of Turkey. As I said during the course of dinner, 70 percent of what we import from Iran is not of Iranian origin. From India, from China, from Syria, from Afghanistan, from Turkey. All of these items can still come into America, but not from Iran.
Which items are not from Iran?
“The cinnamon, the cardamom, the ginger, many items,” Sharifi said. ”These items I can bring into America, but the point is, we’re a very small business. I don’t have the money to just fly out to Turkey tomorrow and spend three weeks in a hotel there to find the right vendors, to find the right freight forwarders, to find the right customs brokers. That’s difficult to do right here in your home country...I mean, I’ve got friends in Turkey, but I didn’t grow up in Turkey. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know the business etiquette that well.”
You’re starting to shift into other markets, ones in which you have a lot of competition: olive oil, truffles and peppers. Are you finding a way to distinguish yourself in this market?
“I would say so, insofar as people trust us. People know what we’ve done is really unique and really different. I walk into a kitchen and the chefs ask, ‘Behroush, what do you have for us?’ We’re doing supremely well in olive oil. First of all, it’s a good product. Second of all, it’s a good price. And third of all, the chefs trust me. I’ve already got my foot in the door.”
To those unfamiliar with the Saffron King’s business, Sharifi spoke at length before each of Scrugg’s well-crafted courses, sometimes grandstanding longer than a Jerry Garcia solo. Two outtakes:
On the manna that Sharifi sells:
“The manna is the sap that’s collected from the bushes in the desert. We have two kinds. One is from the camel thorn bush, the Hedysarum [manna]. It’s the brown one, looks like brown sugar. The other one, Shir-Khesht. I don’t suggest you pronounce it. You might break something. I believe that’s the one that’s found in the Bible, in the Book of Exodus. Go home tonight and read it. Everything I’m telling you now comes directly out of the Bible. It’s not just the machinations of a wild man with a big chin. What is manna? What is not manna constitutes a PhD debate. But it’s the sweet, saccharine exudations of a plant, maple syrup if you will. So you forage from the bush. In ancient times, there was an insect that subsisted on these bushes. The insect is now extinct. In ancient times, the Israelites were starving; they prayed for food; food fell from heaven. The insects — now humans — they make an incision in the root or branch, the sap comes to the surface, coagulates, hardens and, even to this day, you have wind storms that pick up the manna. It swirls into the atmosphere, and it falls and it looks like it’s raining. So the Israelites believed it was a divine intercession. The word ‘manna’ is ancient Hebrew for ‘what is it?’ The Bible tells you that Israelites argued amongst themselves as to what this product was. Whatever it is or was, they’d use it to sweeten their unleavened bread....In Iran, we use manna as a natural antibiotic to reduce fever in a child. Who needs these poisons that we’re all told are good for us? These botanicals are better than the pharmaceutical substitute.”
On the high-quality saffron that can run hundreds of dollars an ounce:
“Saffron is very effective as an anti-depressant. Thirty milligrams of saffron is better than the [similar] dosage of Prozac. It’s said that if you eat too much saffron, you will die laughing. If you eat three to five grams of saffron, it will shut down your ... liver. Pregnant women are advised not to eat too much saffron, but to eat three to five grams [of saffron] would be very difficult to do. Saffron is from the full-flowering Crocus [sativus]. It’s a bulb. It’s planted at the end of the summer. You water the fields for a month or so, where you cover the tops with an inch or two of water. From mid-October to mid-November, you harvest. Since the world began, I can’t think of anything ... that retains such incredible value. Gold. Precious stones. Textiles. Real estate. Prostitution. ... Saffron has been so valuable because it requires such particular growing and climate and soil conditions. But it’s the labor. You plant the bulb, and each bulb will yield three or four flowers every day. The bulb will flower for a month. ...You have to pick the flowers before sunrise; otherwise the flower wilts. It’s the only the temperate spice. You can grow saffron anywhere. ... There’s a thread [on the Crocus flower] that’s white and goes through the middle of the plant. It’s white, then it becomes yellow, orange. ...That’s the only commercial part of the plant.”