At Café Bar-Ba-Reeba on Chicago's north side, there is one key ingredient that could make or break Executive Chef Matt Holmes' menu.
“We feature it in our paeallas, 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 its incredibly important to have high quality saffron,” Holmes explained to VOA from his test kitchen above the restaurant, where he was preparing one of those signature dishes.
Saffron has long been one of the world's most expensive spices, at times traded as currency. The saffron “crocus” that produces the spice grows mostly in parts of Europe, Iran and India.
It is a staple in cuisine throughout Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but less so in the United States, where saffron — while a $60 million market has limited appeal.
But Rumi Spice, Holmes' saffron supplier, is hoping to change that.
“We are named after Juhalladin Rumi, he was a 13th century poet and philosopher who was born in present day Afghanistan, and a Sufi mystic,” says founder Kimberly Jung. “One of his most famous sayings is, ‘Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.’”
Veterans inspired by relationships
Kimberly Jung, Keith Alaniz and Emily Miller are three of the founders of Rumi Spice, U.S. military veterans who served in Afghanistan who returned with more than just combat experience.
“I was never able to resolve just going to Afghanistan, spending time, and then leaving and never thinking about the place again, especially when you form relationships with people who live there,” says Alaniz.
Those relationships inspired the business strategy for Rumi Spice — increasing demand in the U.S. for saffron produced by Afghan farmers they met in Herat province. Saffron has very limited demand in Afghanistan, leaving the market for it outside the country.
“Afghanistan has essentially been cut off from the international market for 30 years,” says Alaniz. “They are producing a great product but they aren't able to get a fair value for their goods because they are not able to export it anywhere.”
Afghanistan's enduring instability isn't the only challenge to getting Afghan saffron to market.
“Near to 20 years we've been growing saffron, there are still no certificates for our saffron product,” says Abdullah Faiz, chancellor of Herat University, which is working with Purdue University in Indiana to develop a “department of food technology,” with Afghan saffron farmers in mind.
“The department of food technology will teach and give training for the farmers to produce the saffron with hygiene quality,” says Faiz, adding that it could help increase demand for Afghan saffron in new markets.
Quality, taste is key
A lack of international certification hasn't stood in the way of Rumi Spice, which conducts rigorous tests to make sure the saffron it is importing is clean and pure before arriving in the United States.
The quality and taste of Rumi Spice saffron is what attracted Matt Holmes as a customer.
“It's much higher potency,” says Holmes. “So while we pay a premium to use Rumi, it actually goes a longer way, so that's another benefit of using a higher quality product you can stretch how much you are using each time.”
“Our supply is outpacing our demand,” says Alaniz, “which is good for us because it keeps our prices low at the moment, but we hope to increase more demand here in the U.S. so we can purchase more saffron.”
“The good thing about Rumi is they have a premium product that's fantastic to use,” says Chef Matt Homes. “You are kind of doing double duty with the program that they have with helping farmers in Afghanistan and helping women, being a positive influence instead of just selling a product, so you really get the best of both worlds.”
These are qualities investors also are noticing. Rumi Spice was recently featured on the U.S. reality television show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneur Mark Cuban committed $250,000 for a 15 percent stake in the company, signaling his faith in Rumi Spice, and the future potential for saffron grown in Afghanistan.