It is a warm spring afternoon in Herat Province in western Afghanistan. The winter was unseasonably short, and Mohammad Salehi is concerned that might have affected the sun-loving crops.
Salehi closely inspects each deep-orange strand in the palm of his hand. He holds up a few, inhaling the earthy fragrance, and then, gently, sets each back on the table once he is satisfied with its weight, length, scent, and flavor.
These saffron strands are the fruit of the collective labor of Heray Spice — a thriving young startup Salehi built to get Afghan saffron into the hands of restaurant chefs and home cooks in the United States. “We try to create some of the finest quality of saffron here,” the 2021 Eater New Guard member says. For Salehi, each strand of saffron connects his new life as an American entrepreneur with his memories of growing up in a farming family in Afghanistan — and represents a way to bring the two worlds together.
Salehi, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, settled in Chicago in 2014 under a special relocation program offered to Afghans who had risked their lives for America’s fight against extremism. The initial years were tough, with Salehi holding down multiple jobs to support himself in a new country, while dearly missing his homeland. He often reminisced about the lush farms his mother cultivated in the ancient city of Herat, capital of the western Afghan province of the same name that shares borders with Iran. “I wanted to do more, and work on something that would help my people in Afghanistan — the farmers like my mother,” he tells Eater.
The answer came to him in the few tiny vials of the homegrown, earthy gold spice that he brought with him to America. “My family has been growing saffron since 2002, when the U.S. and the UN extended support for its cultivation following the fall of the Taliban,” he says, referring to one of the many programs introduced in Afghanistan to steer farmers away from opium cultivation, which the Taliban had forced them into. While Salehi’s family used to grow wheat and chickpeas before the United Nations program, they found saffron production profitable, and quickly switched to the new cash crop.
Years later, as Salehi built his life in the U.S., the family-grown saffron became his calling and contribution to the cultural melting pot that had embraced him. “This business is not only a connection to Afghanistan, but also [a way] to introduce quality saffron to the United States,” he says.
Good saffron boasts a dark-yellow to orange color and deep aroma. It’s a delicate spice, but its distinct flavor and body are used to provide scent and color in Central and South Asian cooking; it’s also used in medicinal practices. Each strand is a stigma of the purple saffron flower, and each flower produces only three. It’s widely known as the most expensive spice in the world. For Salehi to fulfill his vision, the saffron needs to be high quality — and profitable enough for farmers to grow it.
The company’s name is a historical variation on “Herat,” the Persian city where the spice is believed to have originated. Heray Spice employs 28 families that grow saffron as part of a cooperative. “As part of the co-op, we provide them training and workshops on new production and harvesting techniques, as well as tools and resources to maintain quality,” Salehi explains. “Since saffron harvest is done by hand, on account of being extremely delicate, we place utmost importance on sanitation.” Heray’s farmers harvest saffron the traditional way, without the use of machines more commonly used in saffron production in the West. While this ensures that the strands remain intact and long, it also increases risks of contamination if not processed and packaged properly. “Every batch of saffron that we import into the U.S. has to pass a microbiology lab test, which ensures that only the healthiest produce is brought to the country,” he says. Sanitation concerns were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Salehi responded by imposing stricter protocols for his farmers and workers.
But what sets Heray Spice apart, making it lucrative for farmers, is the payout: significantly more than market rates. The company also sends a percentage of its profits to support two local schools in Herat Province, a way to give back to the children of the farming community. “No other institution, not even the government, has supported us the way Heray Spice has,” 45-year-old Nasir Ahmad, a farmer from Pashtun Zarghun District, tells Eater. “They offer training, resources, and even buy the final product at a higher market rate. Saffron farming requires a lot of energy and work with one’s hands. The better the resources we have, the better the produce will be,” he explains. Salehi estimates that Heray Spice pays 30 to 50 percent more than local market rates.
Farming saffron is harder than regular crops, Ahmad explains. “Growing saffron flowers requires an intense labor of love. Much of the process, from planting bulbs to harvesting and picking the saffron strands, has to be done with skilled hands to ensure the best quality of the produce,” he says. “This is how our fathers and grandfathers grew it, and this is how we grow it now.” Salehi speculates that preservation of the traditional cultivation practices may be why Afghanistan’s saffron has been ranked among the world’s best in the last few years.
Farmers like Ahmad are constantly under pressure from the Taliban to shift to opium farming, a narcotic trade that finances the insurgent group’s terrorist activities. However, Heray Spice provides co-op members with financial stability and rewards that help them resist the insurgent forces. “We are always under threat [from insurgents], but we cannot stop and have to keep moving forward,” Salehi says. “People are dependent on us, farmers are depending on us — we cannot let them down.”
Salehi still needs to build his customer base in the U.S. Despite developing an ethically sourced and high-quality product, Salehi quickly learned that saffron was not as popular in America as it is in Afghanistan. As a longtime, albeit judicious, saffron user myself, I am aware of how rare and unique the spice is for the Western palate. I often carry little bottles of a gram of saffron as gifts for friends from across the globe, and my offerings are usually met with awe and wonder, since few people outside of this region have had the opportunity to cook with Afghan saffron.
But Salehi was not going to let that deter him. “I didn’t know back then as much as I know now,” he admits. “Selling directly to [Americans] meant we would first have to educate the audience. We did not have those kinds of resources. We did not even have a car,” he recalls.
The culinary industry in the U.S. was vast and diverse, Salehi observed. “We went directly to the heart of this industry — its chefs. They were familiar with the spice, and had a demand for it. So we targeted upscale restaurants and approached them,” he says.
The Milwaukee chef Adam Pawlak swears by the potency of Salehi’s spice. “You can smell the deep fragrance through the packaging,” he tells Eater. “It is not processed and cut [into finer pieces] but has long and thick threads, which define a good saffron.” Pawlak remembers testing the product when Salehi brought it to him five years ago by placing it in hot water (a customary way of testing many Asian spices). “As soon as I did the first test against other saffron products, the color of the water was significantly deeper yellow and the smell and flavor was unmatched,” he says. He has since only used Heray saffron. “I use it mostly for making saffron stock or cream, and also for beautiful, rich pasta sauce. The color and taste of the saffron is apparent, and is easily the star of the dish,” he says.
Soon enough, Heray Spice found a dedicated clientele among Chicago’s and Wisconsin’s chefs and restaurants, and was able to expand production. “I think it is incredible the way they harvest, and sustain their product, while being mindful of the farming,” Pawlak says. “Being able to bring such a unique and special product to customers around the world and also help schools in Afghanistan is a major plus for me.”
Unfortunately, as COVID-19 upended the restaurant industry, Heray Spice was also forced to scale back. “The pandemic has hit us badly with many restaurants shutting or going out of business. We had to reduce production for this year, and reduced our capacity from 35 families to 28,” Salehi says.
But he has never been one to give up, creating new opportunities out of challenges. He opened up the product to home cooks, selling directly via the Heray Spice website. “We also realize the risks of being a single-product company with a niche offering,” he says. “We are considering expanding our offering to include cumin from Badakhshan, another quality spice from the north of Afghanistan.” Salehi also plans to sell Afghanistan’s revered green tea, which he expects will be extremely popular among Asian diasporas in America.
Amid the expansion plans, Salehi hopes to stay true to his commitment to a quality product, as well as fair and ethical returns to the farmers that produce them. “We aim to create similar cooperative models for the new items as well, since it gives us more control over the final product and we can assure that the farmers are paid fairly,” he says.
In spite of the pandemic and the challenges with insurgency in Afghanistan, Salehi is committed to making it work. “In the end, I have three simple goals — helping chefs, helping farmers, and helping children.”
Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist currently working from Afghanistan and India. Fazl Ahmad is a photographer and graphic designer based in Herat, Afghanistan.