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. It is widely used in Indian vegetarian cuisine with pulses, beans, vegetables, savory snacks, pickles and chutneys. When added to hot oil, its strong smell changes to an enticing oniony garlicky aroma. It is considered a digestive aid, and it helps to neutralize flatulence. In ayurveda Asafoetida is considered a stimulant, not only to the digestion, but also to the respiratory and nervous systems.
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Unlike cumin, coriander and cinnamon, asafoetida does not cross culinary boundaries seamlessly. It is not just its spelling that is the most uncommon thing about it. For the familiar, initially its smell can be alarming. It belongs to the category of those ingredients that make you wonder how it became a culinary spice.
The name asafoetida originates from the Persian word aza (mastic resin) and a Latin word foetida, meaning stinking. It is called devil’s dung because of its strong pungent smell due to the presence of sulfur compounds. The perennial asafoetida plants are native to the region between the Mediterranean and central Asia, especially Afghanistan and Iran. Even though most of the world’s production of asafoetida comes from Iran and Afghanistan, India is the major consumer of this spice.
An ancient spice comes to the U.S.
Asafoetida is a hard aromatic resinous gum collected from certain species of giant fennels, plants of the genus ferula. The plant develops a large, thick taproot, which produces a thick sap when it is cut. The sap is collected just before the plants start flowering. This milky liquid soon coagulates when exposed to air. The color darkens when it is sun dried into a solid form. Asafoetida is sold in blocks or pieces as a gum and more frequently as a fine powder, sometimes crystalline or granulated.
The lump asafoetida is the most common form of pure asafoetida. 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 smell. It is available as either mustard yellow powder or sandy brown coarse powder. Both block and powdered asafoetida are available at Indian groceries and specialty spice stores in the United States.
Asafoetida’s use as a tenderizer and preservative for meat was known centuries ago. The great Indian epic “Mahabharata” includes graphic descriptions of how shoulders and rounds of animals were dressed in ghee, and garnished with fruits, herbs and spices, including asafoetida. It was a popular spice in Europe since the Roman times and a much-preferred spice of the Middle Ages. 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.
Discovered by Alexander’s forces
The strong smelling and sparingly used spice, asafoetida has an interesting history. Its use in ancient herbal medicine dates to the seventh century B.C. The clay tablets in the library of King Assurbanipal of Assyria identified 250 vegetable drugs including asafoetida. Asafoetida emerged as a substitute for the now-extinct precious spice silphium (also called lasar) during Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia. The Roman historian Arrian recounts the discovery of asafoetida by the soldiers of Alexander. While crossing the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, they discovered the asafoetida plant. Although not quite so good, it made a perfect substitute for silphium in tenderizing hard meat.
In ancient times, silphium from the region of Cyrene was in great demand. The spice became one of the major sources of revenue for Cyrene because it resisted attempts at cultivation and transplantation. The plant was valued for its many uses as a food source, a seasoning for food and, most important, a medication.
Silphium was first mentioned in one of the Athenian poems from sixth century B.C. as a seasoning and dominant flavor of sauces served at banquets. It was also prescribed as part of several compound drugs in the Hippocratic texts. Ancient Greeks and Romans also prized silphium, although it clearly was becoming rare. By the end of the first century, silphium became extinct after profit-taking led to its decline.
While various herbs were common to Classical Roman cuisine, some are generally unknown or not readily available to the modern cook. In the Flowers and Rosenbaum translation of “Apicius,” substitution given for silphium is asafoetida. Here’s a way asafoetida can be used today.
Sweet and Spicy Pineapple Salsa
2 cups fresh diced pineapple
1 to 2 serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut crosswise into thin slices (less for milder taste)
2 tablespoons finely diced shallots or red onion
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons honey
2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, grated (1 tablespoon)
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon asafoetida
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (less for milder taste)
Two teaspoons chopped cilantro leaves for garnish
1. Combine the pineapple, serrano pepper and shallots in a large bowl and toss gently.
2. Mix lemon juice, salt, honey and ginger in a small bowl and pour over the pineapple mixture. Cover and let stand for 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, sprinkle in the asafoetida and let it incorporate for about 15 seconds. Its strong and powerful smell will change to an enticing oniony-garlicky aroma. Stir in crushed red pepper flakes and remove from the stove.
4. Pour the mixture over the salsa. Stir gently to coat evenly. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro. Serve with pita chips. It is ideal to serve this salsa fresh.
Top photo: Asafoetida. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran