Special Ingredients: Asafetida

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?

asafoetida (photo from ayusheda.com)

asafoetida (photo from ayusheda.com)

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:

  1. finely ground mustard yellowy powder
  2. 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

asafoetida

asafoetida

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.

History

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

Antiflatulent

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“.

Medical applications

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).

Bait

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.

Religious Uses

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

"yellow powder

"yellow powder"

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.

Update me when site is updated

11 comments for “Special Ingredients: Asafetida

  1. September 16, 2009 at 11:29 AM

    I knew nothing of asafetida before I read your post, thanks for the great info!

    Btw, I have not gotten updates for your feed in my reader since Sept. 1. Not sure if it’s just me?

  2. September 16, 2009 at 5:16 PM

    This is completely new to me! It’s great to learn about this versatile and “magical” spice!

  3. September 17, 2009 at 8:24 AM

    I’ve heard about it but I haven’t very clear its properties and differences.
    I’ve the same issue like Natasha the last update in my rss reader is Sept 1 :(

    Thanks a lot for sharing :)

    Gera

  4. SippitySup
    September 17, 2009 at 4:54 PM

    There is soooo much to learn in this world. I admire how you step and and put yourself out there for new things. GREG

  5. September 19, 2009 at 11:07 AM

    It’s funny, I just got a tiny tin this week at the Indian store. I had no clue what it was but was thinking of using it as a food coloring for making savory macarons. Macarons requires a food coloring powder and I thought this would be perfect. Thanks for educating us about asafetida. I had no clue of its medicinal value either. Have I told you how I much I reading your posts and all your interesting finds? Keep up the great work with awesome food!

  6. September 24, 2009 at 12:03 AM

    lol – I had heard of the nickname of ‘devils dung’ before but I had no idea of asefetida’s smelly reputation. Glad I had Vicks’ vapo-rub instead of having to hang this around my neck as a child LOL!

    ps. Like Natasha and Gera, I also haven’t been getting updates in my blogger dashboard

  7. October 2, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Oh WOW, are you a Krishna devotee? Your blog posts are so informative as usual. I have never heard of this spice before. This is very interesting.

  8. October 2, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    I was introduced to asafoetida when I attended a cookery demonstration by Manju Malhi last year, then bought it to make a dish that she taught. I have to agree, strong stuff! In fact, the husband didn’t like it and so after using it just once I had to give it to an Indian friend who will make better use of it than I.

  9. admin
    October 2, 2009 at 5:16 PM

    Natasha – thanks, I am always inspired by your site. I also appreciate the heads up on the RSS, think I fixed it.

    Lisa – gotta love trying new spices

    Gera – my pleasure

    Sippity – thanks!

    Jackie – thanks for the compliment – look forward to reading about those spicy macarons – I bet they’ll be delicious

    Phyllis – yeah, you might have had other social issues if you had this draped around your neck =)

    Kenny – not a Krishna, but I thought it very interesting to see how they worked around the issues.

    Helen – I bet that was a fascinating class. This ingredient was one of those that the first time I tried it, I thought oh my – I am never going to get this to work, but the second time, I really came to appreciate what it did to the dish, but its not one – at least for me – to play around with.

  10. October 9, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    I know that there are many things like this Indian households in America do not use, and your right they are concentrated to India… but I too would love to try it, and did not see it in the Indian market here. A blog once emailed me about some mango powder he found, and even that is tricky to use if you do not know how much, or what it is used for…he had no luck, and it can be strong… Thanks once again for a great adventure into a product I now want to try!

  11. November 30, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    I love your breadth of information and your good humor!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is using OpenAvatar based on