Asafetida – Satan’s Root – Devil’s Gum

Asafetida

(Ferula assa-foetida L.)

The Latin name ferula means carrier or vehicle; a related species (F. vulgaris), native to the Mediterranean, is mentioned in the Greek mythology as the plant that helped Prometheus to carry the stolen fire from the Sun to the Earth. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. The same Latin root appears in the botanical name of mango.

Apiaceae (parsley family); Asafetida, also spelled asafoetida, gets its name from the Persian aza, for mastic or resin, and the Latin foetidus, for stinking. It is a gum that is from the sap of the roots and stem of the ferula species, a giant fennel that exudes a vile odour. The notorious asafetida (Ferula assafoetida) is the strong smelling, even stinking, dried yellow-brownish resin extracted from the root of a plant that grows wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Asafetida gets its name from assa, a Farsi word meaning “resin”, and the Latin foetidus meaning “stinky.

Asafetida is grown chiefly in Iran and Afghanistan from where it is exported to the rest of the world. In India it is cultivated in Kashmir. It is a perennial fennel that grows wild to 3.6 metres in height. It bears fine leaves and yellow umbel flowers. The roots are thick and pulpy and also yield a similar resin to that of the stems. All parts of the plant have the distinctive fetid smell.Collecting resin is done just before asafoetida starts flowering, the stalks are cut close to the root. A milky liquid oozes out, which dries to form a resin. This is collected and a fresh cut is made. This procedure lasts for about three months from the first incision, by which time the plant has yielded up to two pounds of resin and the root has dried up.

asafetida chunks of resin

The milk juice (obtained from the root), which becomes a brown, resin-like mass after drying. The trading form is either the pure resin or so-called compounded asafetida which is a fine powder consisting to more than 50% of rice flour and gum arabic to prevent lumping. The advantage of the compounded form is that it is easier to dose.

 asafoetida ground powder

Some very picturesque names (German Teufelsdreck, French merde du diable, Czech čertovo lejno, Swedish dyvelsträck and Turkish şeytan tersi), all meaning more or less politely dung of devil, exemplify the small enthusiasm this unusual spice meets outside the regions of its traditional usage. Latvian drīveldriķis is an obsolete pharmaceutical term probably derived from a Northern Germanic language; there is also a Latvian calque velna sūds devil’s shit. A similar motive is represented by Hungarian ördöggyökér satan’s root and Finnish pirunpihka devil’s gum.

Asafoetida, Assafetida, Assafoetida, Devil’s Dung, Devil’s Durt, Food of the Gods (Persian), Laser (Roman), Stinking Gum

Others are:

French: assa foetida, ferulr perisque
German: Asafotida, Stinkender Asant
Italian: assafetida
Spanish: asafetida
Afghan: kama-i-anguza
Indian: hing, hingu, heeng
Tamil: perunkaya

Varieties

Various species of genus Ferula grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Most important as spice is F. assa-foetida, although one reads occasionally about other species (F. persica, F. alliacea, F. foetida and F. narthex) as inferior substitutes or adulterations. All these species are native to Central Asia (Iran to Afghanistan) and are, to my knowledge, not cultivated anywhere else.

spices-map

Galbanum is the dried latex from a related species (Ferula galbaniflua) also native to Central Asia (Iran). Galbanum has an aromatic, pleasant odour and is mainly used for incenses.

Aroma & Flavour

Very strong smell, rather repugnant, remotely similar to (not altogether fresh) garlic. a pungent smell of rotting onions or sulfur. The smell dissipates with cooking. on its own, extremely unpleasant, like concentrated rotten garlic. When cooked, it adds an onion-like flavour.

It’s one of the most interesting and memorable aromas you encounter when entering a South Indian restaurant or kitchen. When used judiciously the effect is nothing short of transporting; your forays into Indian cooking will benefit immeasurably from its use, for which there’s no substitute.

Health Benefits of Asafetida

Asafetida is known as an antidote for flatulence and is also prescribed for respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. Its vile smell has led to many unusual medical claims, mostly stemming from the belief that it’s foetid odour would act as a deterrent to germs. In several European countries a small piece of the resin would be tied on a string and hung around children’s necks to protect from disease. The shock of the sulphurous smell was once thought to calm hysteria and in the days of the American Wild West it was included in a mixture with other strong spices as a cure for alcoholism.

Dried asafetida consists mostly of a resin (25 to 60% of the total mass, 60% of which are esters of ferula acid) and a complex carbohydrate part (25 to 30%). The essential oil (10%) contains a wealth of sulfur compounds, mainly (R)-2-butyl-1-propenyl disulphide (50%), 1-(1-methylthiopropyl) 1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl-3-methylthioallyl disulphide. Furthermore, di-2-butyl trisulphide, 2-butyl methyl trisulphide, di-2-butyl disulphide and even di-2-butyl tetrasulphide have been found. (Phytochemistry, 23, 899, 1984)

The essential oil contains also some terpenes (α-pinene, phell­andrenes) and hendecyl­sulphonyl acetic acid. Ethers of sesqui­terpenes with coumarines have also been identified (farnesi­feroles).

asafetida bio drawing

Buying and storing

Asafetida is mostly sold pre-ground and is available at any Indian grocery. You will not need any more than the smallest of containers because a pinch or two per dish is sufficient.

• Two main varieties are available, classified on the basis of their place of origin, flavour and colour: Hing Kabuli Sufaid (milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (red asafoetida). Choose the variety that suits your taste.
• Check the manufacturing and expiry date, packaging etc. before purchase.
• You can buy it in block form or in powdered form.

  • Fresh asafetida resin is powerful and can be highly unpleasant to the uninitiated, yet intriguing and stimulating to its fans. Asafetida is used as a savoury substitute for onion and garlic in the Jain religion.
  • For strongest flavour, buy asafetida resin.
  • For milder flavour in an easier to use form, buy powdered asafetida called hing from Indian groceries.
  • Yellow asafetida is milder than the grey powder.

It is vital to keep asafetida in airtight containers as its sulfurous odour will effect other foods and spices. It is most commonly available as a powder or granules that can be added directly to the cooking pot. It is also sold in lumps that need to be crushed before using. This is a very powerful spice and even in its ground state lasts well over a year if stored properly, away from light and air.

Ideas with cooking with Asafetida

Use in asafetida in minute quantities, adding directly to cooking liquid, frying in oil, or steeping in water. Usage of asafetida differs a little bit for the compounded (powdered) form and the pure resin. The resin is very strongly scented and must be used with care; furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to fry the resin quickly in hot oil. First, the resin dissolves in the hot fat and gets better dispersed in the food, and second, the high temperature changes the taste to a more pleasant impression. A pea-sized amount is considered a large amount, sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafetida, on the other hand, is less intense and may be added without frying, although then the aroma develops less deeply. Dissolving asafetida in hot oil and adding the oil drop by drop to the food. If used with sufficient moderation, asafetida enhances mushroom and vegetable dishes, but can also be used to give fried or barbecued meat a unique flavour.

Asafoetida is used mostly in Indian vegetarian cooking, in which the strong onion-garlic flavour enhances many dishes, especially those of Brahmin and Jain castes where onions and garlic are prohibited. It is used mostly in south and west India, though it does not grow there. It is used in many lentil dishes (often to prevent flatulence), vegetarian soups and pickles. It is also suited to many fish dishes and some pappadums are seasoned with asafoetida.

In Central Asia and India, however, asafetida has remained in important culinary spice and also herbal medicine to this day. It is sometimes used in Persian and Afghani cooking, and especially popular in India. In some parts of the country (notably, Bengal, the brahmins refuse to eat onions and garlic and often use asafetida instead. Also in the cuisines of other North Indian places, it is not common to combine asafetida with either garlic or onion, even if no taboo applies to the latter.

In the Dravidian South, asafetida is even more popular. The Tamil (South Indian) spice mixture sambar podi frequently contains asafetida. Although exceptions exist, asafetida has the reputation of being a spice for vegetables, not meats; now vegetarianism is more common in South India than in the North, which probably explains why asafetida is so much associated with South India, although its natural habitat lies in the North.

When cooked, its aroma is almost onion-like and just a little gives great taste to any pan-fried fish. Asafetida’s also great used on salted fish, grilled or roasted meats and most vegetables.

 

• It is used commonly in Indian cuisine for flavouring.
• It is added in minute quantities as a powder, or dissolved in water.
• Jains and other communities who shun the use of onion and garlic and use asafoetida as a substitute.
• Temper dals, curries, upmas, rasam etc using hing for an added flavour and aroma. It smells best with ghee than with oil.
• Dissolve powdered asafoetida in buttermilk and temper with curry leaves. It acts as a digestive aid.

Asafetida is best used as a background note for other complimentary spices, like cumin, mustard seeds, dried chillies, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic. Add any combination of these things to your tarka to drizzle over beans, stewed vegetables, or anything at all. Or start your dish with asafetida. As a dish cooks the asafetida graciously recedes into the background, though while it lets other flavours develop it never disappears. The end result is an intensely aromatic dish with layers of flavour and a full mouth-feel. Consistently getting those layers and that texture seem like a challenge for many home cooks.

A little goes a long way when it comes to this spice; so only a tiny bit when seasoning and tempering to flavour food.

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