Organic Asafoetida is the dried latex (gum oleoresin) exuded from the rhizome or tap root of several species of Ferula, a perennial herb that grows 1 to 1.5 m (3.3 to 4.9 ft) tall. The species is native to the deserts of Iran and mountains of Afghanistan and is mainly cultivated in nearby India. As its name suggests, asafoetida has a fetid smell (see etymology below), but in cooked dishes, it delivers a smooth flavor reminiscent of leeks.
It is also known as devil’s dung, asant, food of the gods, jowani badian, stinking gum, hing, hengu, ingu, kayam, and ting. The plant is in the same genus as the now extinct Silphium.
This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment, and in pickling. It typically works as a flavor enhancer and, used along with turmeric, is a standard component of Indian cuisine, particularly in lentil curries such as dal as well as in numerous vegetable dishes. It is sometimes used to harmonize sweet, sour, salty and spicy components in food. Asafoetida, onion, and garlic are considered tamas in nature; yogic texts forbid the use of these three substances in food, and place them alongside meat and alcohol in terms of producing tamas or lethargy. The spice is added to the food at the time of tempering. Sometimes dried and ground asafoetida (in very mild quantity) can be mixed with salt and eaten with raw salad.
In its pure form, its odor is so strong the pungent smell will contaminate other spices stored nearby if it is not stored in an airtight container: many commercial preparations of asafoetida utilize the resin ground up and mixed with a larger volume of wheat flour. The mixture is sold in sealed plastic containers. However, its odor and flavor become much milder and much less in pungency upon heating in oil or ghee. Sometimes, it is fried along with sautéed onion and garlic.
It was familiar in the early Mediterranean, having come by land across Iran. Though it is generally forgotten now in Europe, it is still widely used in India. It emerged into Europe from a conquering expedition of Alexander the Great, who, after returning from a trip to northeastern Persia, thought they had found a plant almost identical to the famed silphium of Cyrene in North Africa—though less tasty. Dioscorides, in the first century, wrote, “the Cyrenaic kind, even if one just tastes it, at once arouses a humor throughout the body and has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, or only a little; but the Median [Iranian] is weaker in power and has a nastier smell.” Nevertheless, it could be substituted for silphium in cooking, which was fortunate, because a few decades after Dioscorides’s time, the true silphium of Cyrene became extinct, and asafoetida became more popular among physicians, as well as cooks.
Asafoetida is also mentioned numerous times in Jewish literature, such as the Mishnah. Maimonides also writes in the Mishneh Torah “In the rainy season, one should eat warm food with much spice, but a limited amount of mustard and asafoetida.”
After the Roman Empire fell, until the 16th century, asafoetida was rare in Europe, and if ever encountered, it was viewed as a medicine. “If used in cookery, it would ruin every dish because of its dreadful smell” asserted Garcia de Orta’s European guest. “Nonsense,” Garcia replied, “nothing is more widely used in every part of India, both in medicine and in cookery. All the Hindus who can afford it buy it to add to their food.”
Cultivation and manufacture
The resin-like gum comes from the dried sap extracted from the stem and roots and is used as a spice. The resin is grayish-white when fresh but dries to a dark amber color. The asafoetida resin is difficult to grate and is traditionally crushed between stones or with a hammer. Today, the most commonly available form is compounded asafoetida, a fine powder containing 30% asafoetida resin, along with rice flour and gum arabic.
Ferula assafoetida is a monoecious, herbaceous, perennial plant of the family Apiaceae. It grows to 2 m (6.6 ft) high, with a circular mass of 30–40 cm (12–16 in) leaves. Stem leaves have wide sheathing petioles. Flowering stems are 2.5–3 m (8.2–9.8 ft) high and 10 cm (3.9 in) thick and hollow, with a number of schizogenous ducts in the cortex containing the resinous gum. Flowers are pale greenish yellow produced in large compound umbels. Fruits are oval, flat, thin, reddish brown and have a milky juice. Roots are thick, massive, and pulpy. They yield a resin similar to that of the stems. All parts of the plant have the distinctive fetid smell.
The English name is derived from asa, a Latinized form of Farsi azā, meaning “resin”, and Latin foetidus meaning “smelling, fetid”, which refers to its strong sulfurous odor.