We like to keep it real—and so does Heray Spice. What makes Mohammad Salehi's saffron so special? It comes straight from Afghanistan from family-owned farms (Mohammad's mother still helps out with the saffron farming). There's a reason Afghani saffron is the top-rated saffron in the world—and Heray Spice's is just that: pure saffron. Learn more about Mohammad and Heray Spice's story below.
Tell us a little bit about Heray Spice. What inspired you to start your brand and specifically this product.
Heray Spice is a farmers' co-op. We import the saffron from Afghanistan. We have 25 family farmers and around 11 farms. We basically work with these farmers directly and one of the farmers is my mom—she is a Syrian from Afghanistan and she is doing the farming.
We cultivate the saffron and then we bring the saffron to our facility in northen Afghanistan. We process and we clean the saffron because, uh, the saffron has to be picked, each string out of a Crocus flower. After all the processes are done, it's cultivated, it's good to go, then we bring it to the U.S.
From there, we help restaurants, home chefs and professional chefs with saffron. What inspired me is the farmers in Afghanistan. I came from Afghanistan in 2014 and one of my goals was how I can help my country and help the people have a better picture of my country. Afghanistan has been famous for a lot of wars going on in the last 40 years, but also I wanna show the world that we have such a great product.
We have great farmers who are doing their best to produce something valuable for the world. And that basically inspired me to start the company and we have been growing. From my own family farm, we are employing 35 women on a seasonal basis from September to November when we have the harvest season.
So tell us a little bit more about your backstory. How did you get to where you are today? Have you always loved food and being in the kitchen?
I love food, I'm a very big foodie person. My backstory is when I came to the U.S, one day, I was trying to make some saffron rice back in 2014. And then I went to the supermarket. I found saffron for four dollars a gram. And I was surprised, how can saffron be for four dollars? Because as a farmer, I know it costs around seven to eight dollars to produce almost one gram of saffron. That started the idea that maybe there's something wrong. So I grabbed the saffron. I did a basic water test, put it into the water. I saw that it's actually corn. A little bit of saffron, a lot of corn silk with food coloring.
It's a lot of other ingredients that they sell you as saffron. Then I was like, well, I have a product. My family has been farming. I went back to Afghanistan in 2017. I brought some saffron with me in my bag.
And then I started testing with some. The chefs saw the product, the quality, the smell, then I registered the business. We went through all the paperwork and we launched our company. And since then we’ve met more than 1,400 chefs, in Chicago and in New York.
So I did saffron testing with them. I helped them cook and that basically helped us be here. As well as I always wanted to do something for food, it can be ingredients or cooking. For that reason, I love to do what I do every day.
So tell us a little bit more about what makes your product special, outside that it is real saffron.
So number one, we work directly with the farmers. I am a farmer, the 25 farmers that are working in our co-op, we are not basically buying and selling their saffron. We are not a broker of the food business. We cultivate the saffron ourselves. I go back and forth to Afghanistan. So this product is really from farm to table of chefs. One aspect of is helping the society, keeping that social enterprise in mind, meaning I wanna help uplift the community of Afghan farmers for a long time.
Our saffron in Afghanistan has been sold in local markets, brought to different countries by big corporations, which pay very little attention to the actual farmers who are behind these products. So, number one, the aspect of farming, number two, the quality.
There is an international, recognized non-for-profit organization, which evaluates and categorizes every product. It's called The International Taste Institute. In the last six years, they have ranked the Afghan saffron as the best quality saffron in the world.
That's scientifically—not because I love the product, but it's actually, that's the fact compared to Kashmiri or Iranian, any other saffron. The third factor is we are very local. We talk with chefs. We are not a big corporation. We go, we talk with them, we show them the product. We let them sample it out, taste it.
That is how we can help chefs and farmers. So that is the idea. That's why our saffron is different. Our company is different because of the social mission behind it.
So tell us about your favorite recipes to make with your saffron.
There are a lot of recipes you can make with saffron because saffron is tied to a lot of cultures. My family, we cook saffron Tahdig, which is an Afghani crispy rice. It literally means bottom of the dish or bottom of the pot.
We also love to cook saffron chicken, which tastes really good, it smells really good. And then culturally speaking, I taste it at French restaurants.
Then we have saffron risotto for my American Italian friends who are in restaurants or home cooks. And then, with Spanish food, we have saffron paella, which those are all dishes that I love.
So to anyone who's never tried saffron before. How would you describe the taste and the smell?
The smell of saffron is a natural essence. It’s more of a woody, greenish smell. Once you open the saffron jar, or you put it in tea, you will see that it's very hard to connect it to any other smell since it has its own specific essence of the smell. For the taste, saffron tastes something between honey and lemon. A little bit savory, a little bit sweet. It has a very good yellow, greenish color, which looks very fantastic in your food.
How would you describe the Heray Spice community?
The people are professional chefs and home cooks. We noticed in the last 10 years, a big trend toward social-mission companies or social-driven companies, as well as small local companies, because we notice a lot of corporations, they don't have an actual connection with the farmers or people who are harvesting the, the product. So I believe that the people who are helping our business are people who care about the cause that is bigger than just the spice.
It's more about the culture. It's more about helping the farmers, helping the chefs and also getting a fantastic high quality product.
What makes Chicago a special community for foodies? Why do you love this city?
I always tell my friends that are immigrating from Afghanistan to come to Chicago. The reason is it's very welcoming.
It's very diverse with different cultures and backgrounds in this city. So what makes Chicago different is different types of foods, different cultures, and all come together under the same umbrella. People appreciate if you have a good product, if you are doing something positive, there are people willing to help you get your product up and running.
What's next? Is there anything in the pipeline that you can talk to us about?
We are adding to our list of products, as well as we are trying to focus more on the retail market because in the last four years, we have been focused a lot on the food services, hotels, restaurants, and that is the backbone of our business. Now we need to work with home chefs and cooks to make sure they have some valuable products at hand. That’s our biggest goal in 2022.