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US Veterans Selling Spice from Afghanistan, Where They Served

Two US Military Veterans Are Selling Spice from Afghanistan, Where They Served
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US Veterans Selling Spice from Afghanistan, Where They Served
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Saffron is one of the costliest spices in the world. It is sometimes considered as valuable as money, and has been used as such in history. Saffron comes from a flower that grows mostly in parts of Europe, Iran and India. Now, a company in the United States is developing new markets for saffron grown in Afghanistan.

Crocus Flowers in Afghanistan
Crocus Flowers in Afghanistan

At Café Ba-Ba-Reeba in Chicago saffron is very important to Executive Chef Matt Holmes’s menu.

“We feature it in our paellas, which are our signature dish here at Café Bar Ba Reeba, as well as use it in a dessert and some other dishes as well. So, it’s incredibly important to have high-quality saffron.”

Cooks throughout Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea use saffron, but few cooks in the United States know about the spice.

The company Rumi Spice, which sells saffron to Holmes, is working to change that.

Kimberly Jung is a founder of Rumi Spice. She says the company takes its name from Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century poet and thinker born in what is now Afghanistan.

“One of his famous sayings is ‘Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.’”

Keith Alaniz is another of the founders of the company, along with Emily Miller. They are all former U.S. military members who served in Afghanistan. Alaniz says they returned with more than just battle experience.

“I was never able to resolve just going to Afghanistan, and spending time; leaving and never thinking about the place again -- especially when you form relationships with people who live there and you understand them and you know their families.”

So, Jung and Alaniz began to sell saffron produced by Afghan farmers they met in Herat province. There is not much demand for saffron in Afghanistan, so farmers must export it.

Alaniz says Afghanistan has basically “been cut off from the international market for 30 years.” He says farmers there are producing a great product. But he says they cannot get a fair value for their goods because they are not able to export it.

Conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan is not the only difficulty in getting Afghan saffron to market.

Abdullah Faiz is the head of the country’s Herat University. He says Afghanistan has been producing saffron for many years but still has no process that guarantees the spice’s quality. So, Herat University is working with Purdue University in Indiana to create a department of food technology for Afghan saffron farmers.

Saffron Processing
Saffron Processing

Faiz says the department will help train farmers to produce saffron that is pure and safe.

Rumi carries out its own careful testing process on its product. Matt Holmes says it was the quality and taste of Rumi’s saffron that convinced him to buy it. But he also likes the company’s support for Afghanistan.

“And you are kind of doing double duty with the program that they have with helping farmers in Afghanistan and helping women and being a positive influence besides just selling a product, so you really get the best of both worlds.”

Investors have noticed the company’s success. Billionaire businessman Mark Cuban invested $250,000 after the company competed on the television show “Shark Tank.”

I’m Jill Robbins.

VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reported this story from Chicago. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Do you like cooking with saffron? What dishes do you put it in? Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

spice – n. a substance (such as pepper or nutmeg) that is used in cooking to add flavor to food and that comes from a dried plant and is usually a powder or seed

paella – n. a Spanish dish of rice, meat, seafood, vegetables, and spices

signature – adj. closely associated with someone or something; making a person or thing easy to recognize

dessert – n. sweet food eaten after the main part of a meal

dish – n. the food served in a dish; food that is prepared in a particular way