With its bright red threads and hint of sweetness, saffron is a distinctive spice that requires a lot of work to cultivate. One Chicago-based saffron company is providing restaurants and home cooks with the spice, all while supporting farmers nearly 7,000 miles away.
Founded in 2017, Heray Spice has been working with a farmers’ co-op in Herat, Afghanistan. The company’s mission is to “support local Afghanistan farmers by importing their saffron to the U.S. and international markets and paying them fair-trade value for their spices.” They also sell cumin and green tea.
Heray Spice CEO and co-founder Mohammad Salehi grew up in Afghanistan in a farming family. After high school, Salehi joined the U.S. Army as a military linguist, serving as a local interpreter. He came to the United States in 2014 on a special immigrant visa, although his family is still in Afghanistan. He holds a master’s degree and worked in information technology, but he saw an opportunity to start a new business.
Salehi noticed that saffron, which comes from the saffron crocus flower, that was available in the United States wasn’t always of the best quality, and some of it was fake. He decided to bring some saffron back from Afghanistan.
“I brought a few ounces in my bag as a sample and started testing with chefs, knocked a lot of the doors of restaurants and hotels. And finally someone said, ‘Hey, bring me some of this. I like it,’” Salehi says.
Salehi began working with farmers in his family’s farming co-op, which his mother runs, in Afghanistan to source saffron for Chicago chefs. It was a win-win: chefs got better quality saffron, while supporting Afghan farmers.
Afghanistan’s semi-arid climate is ideal for growing saffron. The soil is rich in minerals and nutrients, says Salehi, because the land isn’t cultivated as frequently as it is, for example, on American farms.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices by weight because it is so labor-intensive. Every fall, saffron is harvested manually from the flower. According to Heray Spice’s website, each flower produces three to five of its bright red stigmas, “so if you are using roughly 25 stigmas to cook saffron risotto … that is 8 different saffron crocus flowers.” It takes 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron.
Salehi loves saffron. At home, he and his wife often make saffron tahdig, a bottom-of-the-pot, scorched rice dish. Salehi uses a version of this Samin Nosrat recipe, flavoring it with saffron by grinding 20-25 saffron threads and steeping them in boiling water for several minutes before adding it to the parcooked rice before adding the rice to the frying pan. He garnishes the finished dish with cilantro and lettuce. They also make saffron chicken, saffron lamb – even saffron ice cream. His wife also makes a dessert called phirni, a type of pudding, with saffron.
“Even if I [did not] have this business, I would still have saffron in my home,” Salehi says.
Salehi’s business goals extend beyond the kitchens of Chicago chefs. Many of the farm owners in the co-op are women.
“If you want to make a community grow and become stabilized and good, you must empower women,” Salehi says. Many of the farmers Heray Spice works with are women who own their own farm and are the breadwinners of their families. Some lost their husbands in the conflicts of the past decades.
“I probably won't be able to help a thousand women,” Salehi says. “But if I can help five women, you know, bring food to their table and make sure their children have something to eat … then I think we achieved the minimum level of our goal of helping women.”
Additionally, Salehi says that ten percent of Heray Spice’s profits goes to education charities for Afghan children to provide school supplies, tuition, and other aid.
“We want to give back to the community. The idea was, how can we empower not only the farmers, but the next generation?” Salehi says. While some in that next generation might want to continue to farm, he says, the idea is to provide people with the opportunity to go into other careers as well.
But since August 30, 2021, when the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Heray Spice has experienced a new set of challenges that hit close to home as the Taliban have taken control and a hunger and humanitarian crisis has gripped the country.
“It's very sad,” Salehi says. “We have been going through a lot of sad times in the last eight months or nine months.”
Their education initiatives, for one, have been negatively impacted by Taliban control. Salehi says they have lost 90 to 95 percent of their contacts with schools. The Taliban forbids girls from continuing school after the sixth grade. Some of Heray Spice’s funds were for girls’ schools.
“They didn't like that,” Salehi says.
The Taliban also closed Heray Spice’s Afghanistan office for a few months due to the company’s connections with the United States. And then there are the logistical challenges. With American-led companies pulling out of the country – specifically shipping companies like FedEx and UPS, and financial service companies like Western Union– getting saffron to buyers in the United States is now taking months due to complicated re-routes, and paying farmers takes more time.
A drought last year also meant that some of their farmers weren’t able to produce at previous years’ capacity.
“So many people need help right now that it breaks my heart,” Salehi says. “Sometimes I really don't get any money off of my company.”
Whatever profit they are able to make these days is sent back to the farmers, he adds.
Life for the farmers in his co-op under the Taliban is a “sad reality.” He doesn’t want to see Afghanistan cut off economically from the rest of the world. Despite the challenges, Salehi still has hope for the future of his company and his home country to share the spice that he loves.
“Hopefully the U.S. and international community is going to [bring] some of those businesses back in Afghanistan… and start employing some of these people, not to empower the government, but to empower the society.”