• Asafoetida is an important ingredient in Indian cooking. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
It has a reputation for clearing the room, but it's worth sticking around to get to know this deceptively charming spice.
Bron Maxabella

28 Sep 2021 - 10:32 AM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2021 - 3:56 PM

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Known as hing in Hindi, perungayam in Tamil, haltheeth in Arabic, dyvelsdraek in Danish and aza in Greek and Farsi, it's fair to say that asafoetida gets around.

It's a spice made from the dried gum and resin extracted from the fleshy roots of the ferula plant, a species of wild fennel which is part of the carrot family. The gum or sap is collected from plants that are at least four years old and in some parts of India the plant is tapped in the same way a rubber tree is tapped for latex.

Grab the recipe for tadka dal here.

Food of the gods

"The plant was greatly appreciated by the early Persians, who called it 'food of the gods,'" Ian Hemphill, owner of Herbie's Spices, writes in his book The Spice & Herb Bible. The name asafoetida is actually derived from the Persian aza, meaning mastic or resin and foetidus, which is Latin for stinking - an important fun fact to know.

That's because asafoetida often tops the "world's smelliest food" lists, and many believe it's deserving of the title.

"It's odour has been compared to faeces and rotting garlic," Hemphill says. "The bouquet is slightly sulphurous and acrid and resembles fermented garlic, yet it has a lingering sweetness reminiscent of pineapple."

Dung of the devil

Hemphill also feels that some of asafoetida's nicknames are unfortunate. The French call it merde du diable and in English it's often referred to as "stinking gum" or "devil's dung".

"The bouquet is slightly sulphurous and acrid and resembles fermented garlic, yet it has a lingering sweetness reminiscent of pineapple."

"Which I think is very unfair," Hemphill tells SBS Food. "But it has become a bit of a joke, especially from English writers."

Ironically, devil's dung is actually a contender for prized ingredient champion. It seems asafoetida is much more than an odour. For a spice with more backdraft than a house fire, its contribution to flavour has made it indispensable in any self-respecting Indian kitchen.

So much stinky charm

"Hing is used as a substitute for onion and garlic by vegetarians who do not eat both for religious reasons," explains Bhavna Kalra, founder and chef at The Modern Desi. "However, there is no hard and fast rule that it cannot be added to meat-based dishes or recipes where onion and garlic have been also used."

While India is the biggest consumer by far, the spice is mainly grown in its native Afghanistan and Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It's sold in four main forms: tears, blocks, pieces and powder.

While purist will insist on buying asafoetida in blocks, the powder form is probably most accessible to the novice user. You can buy it as brown asafoetida, which is made by grinding the spice with a starch like rice powder; or yellow asafoetida, which is not as strong in flavour as brown as it's mixed with flour and other spices like turmeric.

It works especially well when paired with turmeric, as both spices add an earthiness that balances the fire of other common spices used in Indian cooking.

Though the spices is mostly made using rice powder, if you're gluten-intolerant it's worth checking the form of starch that asafoetida has been blended with, as wheat flour can also be used.

A pinch and a punch

The strong flavour (and wicked smell) disappears with cooking, blending into other ingredients. It imparts an umami flavour to food by mimicking the taste of other savoury ingredients, like eggs and meat as well as garlic and onion. It works especially well when paired with turmeric, as both spices add an earthiness that balances the fire of other common spices used in Indian cooking.

You don't need to add much of this pungent spice to enhance your cooking. A pinch or two is all you need, but as the spice mellows the longer you cook your dish, it's worth experimenting with more to find your personal sweet spot.

"[It's] a spice that is used very sparingly but when not used is missed tremendously," notes Kalra.

Find the recipe for fada apma here.

Fry asafoetida in hot oil for a few seconds to release it's full potential (definitely have a window open when you do this). Then quickly add your other ingredients to stop the spice from burning. It works beautifully with fish or cheese dishes, where a little sprinkle gives a lift. 

Larger amounts are added to curries and stews, especially any lentil or bean dish as the spice is known to help reduce flatulence. In fact, in Ayurveda practice hing is used to improve digestion and treat constipation and other inflammatory issues. It's also commonly prescribed to fire up a low libido, so it's worth adding a little to every dish you cook from this point on.

Careful storage preserves the friendship

To store your new favourite spice, Hemphill recommends putting it any airtight packaging. Then "you can put the pack in another container to hold the smell in," he says.

"I remember being hit by the strong odour of hing, which almost knocked the socks off the unsuspecting customs officer."

This is something Kalra learned the hard way. "The smell just manages to penetrate everything it comes in contact with," she says. "I know this because a decade ago when I moved to Australia, I was worried that I would not find a lot of our Indian spices. So, along with the regular spices like chilli [and] cardamom, I also carried a few small jars of hing in my suitcase.

"As I opened my luggage for the security check at the airport, I remember being hit by the strong odour of hing, which almost knocked the socks off the unsuspecting customs officer. It took a lot of explaining and frantic google searches to prove to him that I was carrying a powder used for cooking and not a dead animal or, worse, drugs in my bag."

She is extremely grateful that these days you can readily find asafoetida in Indian stores and even major supermarkets.

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