Asafoetida is a sparingly used spice in Indian cuisine. A small pinch of this strong smelling spice is sufficient to impart a strong flavor. It is sold either as lumps or in powdered form. The lump asafoetida is the most common form of pure asafoetida.
Asafoetida is a hard aromatic resinous gum collected from certain species of giant fennels, plants of the genus ferula. It is sold in blocks or pieces as a gum and more frequently as a fine powder, sometimes crystalline or granulated. It is also known as devil’s dung because of its strong pungent smell. Asafoetida’s name is derived from the Persian word aza (mastic resin) and a Latin word foetida meaning stinking.
The perennial asafetida plants are native to the region between the Mediterranean and Central Asia, especially Afghanistan and Iran. Three different species are used in the production of asafoetida, each of which shows slight differences in color and properties. Even though most of the world’s production of asafoetida comes from Iran and Afghanistan, India is the major consumer of this spice. When the plants are about four or five years old, they develop very thick and fleshy, carrot shaped roots. The resin is collected from the roots just before the plants start flowering in spring or early summer. The milky liquid soon coagulates when exposed to air. The color darkens when it is sun dried into a solid form. In making commercially ground asafoetida the resins are combined with small quantities of rice, barley or wheat flour to prevent lumping and to reduce the strong flavor. Processed asafoetida often varies in color and texture because of the difference in additives.
Asafoetida has remained a part of the Indian spice box for centuries and continues to be used both in cooking and in medicine in India. As it helps to neutralize flatulence it is used in dishes prepared with various beans and other legumes. It is used in the cooking of various vegetables, certain savory snacks, pickles and chutneys. South Indian vegetable curries are often garnished with a large pinch of asafoetida sautéed in a spoonful of oil or ghee. When asafoetida is added to hot oil, it changes from its strong and powerful smell to an enticing oniony-garlicky aroma. Strict vegetarian diets of India forbid the use onions and garlic, and asafoetida is used in their place for its distinct aroma. In Indian herbal medicine Ayurveda, asafetida is used to stimulate appetite and digestion. Iranian cuisine uses it for flavoring meatballs and in Afghanistan it is used in the preparation of dried meat. Although this spice is practically unknown in modern western cuisines, it is used in the United States and Europe in commercially prepared flavorings.
Asafoetida’s use as a tenderizer and preservative for meat was known centuries ago. Asafoetida was a popular spice in Europe since the Roman times and a much-preferred spice of the Middle Ages.
The strong smelling and sparingly used asafoetida has an interesting history. Its predecessor silphium (also known as silphion or lasar), from the region of Cyrene (now in modern Libya) was in great demand in ancient times. The plant was valued for its many uses as food source, seasoning for food, and most importantly, as medication. However, true silphium became extinct by the end of 1st century A.D. Asafoetida, as a substitute for silphium emerged into prominence during Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia. While crossing the northeastern provinces of the Persian Empire, his soldiers discovered a plant that was almost identical with silphium. Although not quite so good, it made a perfect substitute for silphium in tenderizing hard meat. Cooks interested in historical cookery recreate ancient Roman recipes today using asafoetida when silphium is called for.
Some quick and easy ways to incorporate this healthy spice to Western cuisines are – The flavor of asafoetida complements the hearty flavor of legumes such as lentils, garbanzo beans and black beans.