Kesar pista, or saffron and pistachio, is a familiar combination for South Asians. It features heavily in several traditional desserts like kesar rajbhog â€” saffron-flavored, nut-filled milk balls â€” or kesari burfi, fudgelike saffron confections often studded with pistachios.
And during Holi, the festival of spring â€” March 18 this year â€” many celebrants will sip thandai, a chilled, sweetened milk thatâ€™s stained golden yellow with saffron and often has a pistachio garnish.
Kesar pista is popular for a reason. The ingredients blend brilliantly, tasting even more luxurious, floral and complex together.
â€œWhether you look at the south, whether you look at the west, whether you look at the north, you will find this unique combination of spice and nut,â€ said Varun Kandhari, the director of marketing for Mars Wrigley India, which introduced the new candy bar in December. â€œItâ€™s a very delicate flavor.â€
Neither saffron nor pistachios are native to India â€” saffron most likely came from the Middle East, and pistachios from Central Asia and the Middle East, said Sonal Ved, a Mumbai-based food writer and the author of â€œWhose Samosa Is It Anyway? The Story of Where â€˜Indianâ€™ Food Really Came From.â€
Saffron and pistachio â€œare contrasting, but they are also complimentary,â€ Ms. Ved said. â€œOne has color and aroma. The other has body, or creaminess, and texture.â€
The pairingâ€™s use in dessert was well documented during the Mughal Empire, when kesar pista kulfi was served to royals, according to â€œA Historical Dictionary of Indian Foodâ€ by the food historian K.T. Achaya. The flavor also appears elsewhere in Asia, in Persian dishes like sohan, a saffron brittle topped with pistachios, and bastani, an ice cream typically scented with saffron, pistachio, vanilla and rose water.
Mr. Kandhari said that, if the kesar pista bar sold well in India, Mars Wrigley would consider taking it to other countries. (He declined to share current sales figures for the bar.)
The flavor lends itself well to traditional desserts, he said, and â€œequally works well when you look at some of the contemporary desserts.â€
Dessert shop owners in the United States know this to be true. Here, youâ€™ll find saffron and pistachio cupcakes, brittle, ice cream and doughnuts. This is how kesar pista could become even more mainstream, Mr. Kandhari said. â€œWhat led to matcha becoming very popular across markets was it was used across different formats.â€
Mita Shah, the owner of Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio, has had a kesar pista offering on the menu since 2000. She called it â€œthe king of ice cream.â€
â€œPistachio has its own flavor, and saffron enhances that flavor,â€ she said.
In the last few years, kesar pista ice cream has become the No. 1 seller among both Indian and non-Indian customers. It feels nostalgic to those who grew up enjoying Indian sweets, she said, and intriguing to those who have not.