So many spices have strong medicinal uses as well as imparting flavours to dishes. Asafoetida is one of these. Remember to store asafoetida well as it is very pungent – best to store it away from other ingredients.
Asafoetida is a VERY unusual spice, being unique in origin, smell and blend. The resinous sap from the living rhizome, root stock or tap-root of a giant fennel-like plant that dries into a pungent brown hard resin with a very strong, rather repugnant smell. Indeed, the Latin Foetidus means “smelling, fetid”. It has the common name of Devil’s Dung in some areas, showing the lack of enthusiasm that this spice has outside the areas of common usage. Its smell is characteristically pungent, sulphurous, and the taste is unappealing when raw. It is used as a flavour enhancer and to counterbalance acidity in Indian cooking. It adds a flavour of onions and garlic when cooked.
It is sold in both lump resin form and ground form. The powdered form is the resin mixed with rice flour, and therefore much less strong in taste, but more easy in application.
The strong fetid aroma when uncooked belies the gentle garlic-like aroma it leaves behind after cooking. It is used in very small quantities in Indian cooking for its digestive properties as well as for its flavour, and is excellent with dried beans, pulses and vegetables. Store in a tightly closed container because the smell will invade your cupboards. In ancient Rome, it was stored in jars with pine nuts.
The use of the powdered form and the pure resin differs. The resin has a very strong aroma and must be used with care. It is also necessary to fry the resin in hot oil briefly to better disperse it in the food (it dissolves in the oil better than in water) and the heat changes the taste to something more pleasant. A pea-sized amount is considered a large amount sufficient to flavour a very large pot of food.The resin also seems to last a very long time without degrading in flavour or aroma.
Powdered asafoetida is less intense and may be added without frying although the aroma develops less deeply. The powdered form loses its aroma after some years.
Asafoetida is grown in India (Kashmir), Afghanistan and Iran. Various species grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia.
As mentioned, it is used to flavour dishes in India, especially those that contain no garlic or onions (in some cuisines in India, garlic and onions are not used), and with beans and lentils to reduce any flatulent effects of eating those products. In sauces and pickles it acts as a preservative. In Tamil Nadu, the spice mix sambar podi/powder frequently contains asafoetida. In Europe, it was popular since Roman times, used in the Middle Ages to flavour dishes, but has largely fallen into disuse. In Persian cuisine it is still used. It is used medicinally to stimulate the intestinal and respiratory tracts and the nervous system. It is also useful in preventative medicine for infectious diseases. It helps digestion, prevents flatulence and releases spasms and colic. Asafoetida oil has antibiotic properties.
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