I had read about Asafetida in Madhur Japher’s tome on Indian cooking and seen it referenced in many other Indian recipes and so confidently picked up a container so that my future Indian cooking endeavors might taste that much more authentic. However, I was unprepared for what was to come….
What is It?
According to my trusty Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, Asafetida, known as hing in India, is a dry gum resin. It is obtained from several species of the ferula (fennel and carrot related plants) the plants are cut and the sap is drained and sun-dried into a solid mass. The intensity of flavor and color varies with the source, but typically fresh resin is pearly tanish in color and darkens as it ages. In its natural state it is slightly sticky to the touch and as dense as a block of wood.
When the solid resin is ground it releases a strong overpowering smell (author’s aside: the nickname for this stuff is “Devil’s Dung” – does that give you a hint?) Most home cooks know to immediately double wrap the container least strong sulferous odiferous assults occur. The smell has been describe as “a sulfurous blend of manure and overcooked cabbage, all with the nose-wrinkling pungency of a summer dumpster.” (Source: Chip Rossetti, Devil’s Dung, The World’s Smelliest Spice, Saudi Armaco World), or according to Harold McGee “human sweat and wash-rind cheese”. Neither in my book, are particularly attractive descriptions.
In the West, two types of Asafoetida are common:
- finely ground mustard yellowy powder
- coarsely ground sandy-brown powder
The author of Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, Yumana Devi, recommends the mild Cobra brand (mild and cobra do not equate in my book)
I have the Vandevi brand [suitable only for export], and my version also is blended with turmeric, wheat and rice powder, so not nearly as intense. I like the note on the side of the jar, that boldly states “Yellow Powder” – yup they’re right, it is.
How to Use
Most sources recommend that you use a small amount and add to oil that you will be using to sauté. The heat changes the chemical structure and when cooked, it delivers a smooth flavor, reminiscent of sauteed onions. While at one time this spice was widely used, now cooking with it seems to be concentrated to India. Most of the spice is cultivated in Iran and Afghanistan, but there, they use it primarily for medical purposes.
Alexander the Great, upon returning from a trip to Persia, thought they had acquired a plant almost identical to the famed Silphium of Cyrene in North Africa. That spice had disappeared, and asafoetida despite its odor issues, was thought to be a good substitute. After the Roman Empire fell, until the 16th century, asafoetida was rarely used in Europe, where it became associated with medicine.
Other Interesting Uses
Asafoetida is said to help with flatulence, and for this reason it is frequently included in lentil dishes. In Thailand it is used to aid babies’ digestion and is smeared on the child’s stomach in an alcohol tincture known as “mahahing“.
It is also said to be helpful in cases of asthma and bronchitis – a folk remedy for children’s colds: it is mixed into a pungent-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child’s neck. Ancient uses included application to scorpion bites and casting off horseleeches when gargled with vinegar (Rossetti).
The odor of asafoetida is attractive to the wolves along the Texas/Mexico border. It is also a possible scent bait for catfish and pike. No comments were to be found on its attractiveness to bears.
Spirit Troubles (from Wikipedia)
In Jamaica, asafoetida is traditionally applied to a baby’s anterior fontanel (Jamaican patois “mole”) to prevent spirits (Jamaican patois “duppies”) from entering the baby through the fontanel. In the African-American Hoodoo tradition, asafoetida is used in magic spells as it is believed to have the power to curse.
In India, followers of Jainism avoid root vegetables such as onions and leeks, so asafoetida is a good substitute.
Etymology – this is where it gets fun
Asafoetida’s English and scientific name is derived from the Persian word for resin (asa) and Latin foetida, a nod to its strong sulfurous odor. Its pungent odor has resulted in its being called by many unpleasant names.; thus in French it is known (among other names) as merde du diable (devil’s shit); in English too it was known as devil’s dung, stinking gum and food of the gods. Equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages (e.g. German Teufelsdreck, Swedish dyvelsträck, Dutch duivelsdrek, Afrikaans duiwelsdrek), also in Finnish pirunpaska. In Turkish, it is known as şeytantersi (devil’s sweat), şeytan boku (devil’s shit) or şeytanotu (the devil’s herb). In many of the Indo-Aryan languages it is known as hing. This name is from the Sanskrit han, meaning “kill” and another allusion to that scent. The Persian name for the dried sap of asafoetida is آنغوزه anghouzeh.
While Saffron may be the world’s costliest spice, Asafoetida’s claim to fame is the world’s smelliest spice. Its a keeper in my opinion, but I still think some warning would be nice.