Asafoetida - A Very Smelly Spice But Full Of Flavour
- By: David Hugonin
Botanical Name Ferula asafoetida
Asafoetida is also known as devil's dung, stinking gum, asant, food of the gods, Hing and giant fennel.
It is a species of Ferula native to Iran. It is a herbaceous perennial plant growing to 2 m tall, with stout, hollow, somewhat succulent stems 5-8 cm diameter at the base of the plant. The leaves are 30-40 cm long, tripinnate or even more finely divided, with a stout basal sheath clasping the stem. The flowers are yellow, produced in large compound umbels.
Asafoetida's English and scientific name is derived from the Persian word for resin (asa) and Latin foetida, which refers to its strong sulfurous odour.
Its pungent odour has resulted in it being called by many unpleasant names; thus in French it is known (among other names) as Merde du Diable (Devil's faeces); in some dialects of English too it was known as Devil's Dung, and equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages (e.g. German Teufelsdreck), also in Afrikaans as Duiwelsdrek and also Finnish Pirunpaska or Pirunpihka. In Turkish, it is known as eytantersi, eytan bökösu or eytanotu (the Devil's Herb). In many of the northern Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali) it is known as hing or "Heeng". A related name occurs in many Dravidian languages (e.g. Telugu Inguva, Kannada Ingu), but Tamil perungaayam and Malayalam kaayam come from a different root.
The spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment and in pickles.
Its odour is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma, which is nauseating in quantities, will contaminate other spices stored nearby. However, its smell becomes much milder in cooking and presents an onion-like taste. Some claim that the use of Asafoetida in a marinade or coating for fried fish eliminates the strong smell usually left behind after frying. In India, it is used especially by the trader caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism, who are not allowed to eat onions. It is mainly grown in Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Asafoetida has certain medicinal uses and is most commonly used as a digestive aid. It is reputed to lessen flatulence and is often added to lentil or eggplant dishes in small quantities. It is also said to be helpful in cases of asthma and bronchitis.
It is even used (in very small amounts) is some perfumes.
A folk tradition remedy for children's colds: it is mixed into a foul-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child's neck. An "asfiddity bag" around the neck was a common preventative for colds and flu in West Virginia in the early 1900's.
In Thailand it is used to aid babies' digestion and is smeared on the child's stomach in an alcohol tincture known as "mahahing".
John C Duval reported in 1936 that the odour of asafoetida is attractive to the wolf, a matter of common knowledge, he says, along the Texas/Mexican border. One wonders how he or anyone else found that out and what use it is in knowing it unless Asafoetida is so attractive to a wolf that a pack of them are distracted from chasing their prey by the liberal use of Asafoetida. It would be easy to find out given that wolves eat on the run but somewhat dangerous to investigate we think.
Asafoetida, a stinky spice, invaluable in exotic pickles and with medicinal attributes too but be careful of overusing it - no-one will want to kiss you for a week!
Asafoetida - A very smelly spice but very good and very useful, with medicinal properties. I am David Hugonin, owner and founder of Luminescents and The Natural Herbalist, one of Europe's most trusted suppliers of oils and raw herbal material