I Spice: Asafetida
Asafetida stinks. So why is it popular?
Its name stems from the Persian "aza" (mastic resin) and the Latin "foetida," referring to its strong sulfurous odor. In the Indian herbal medicine Ayurveda, asafetida is used to stimulate appetite and digestion. It helps neutralize flatulence caused by beans and other legumes. Hence, the spice stinks. Not you.
According to New York nutritionist Cynthia Sass, though there is very little published research in the West about asafetida, it has been used as a digestive aid, an anti-inflammatory herb and a bone builder. It also has been shown to contain natural blood thinners and reduce blood pressure.
But is that reason enough to use it? For that matter, Is it even really a spice? What exactly makes people refer to it as "devil’s dung"?
Ammini Ramachandran, food writer and author of "Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy" (IUniverse, 2008), says asafetida isn’t really a spice in the true sense of the word. It is a hard, aromatic, resinous gum collected from certain species of giant fennel. When the plants grow older, they develop carrot-shaped roots. Milky resin is collected from these roots and dried in the sun (it coagulates when exposed to the air), and it subsequently gets darker.
Raw asafetida smells awful. But when it's added to hot oil, the aroma becomes oniony and garlicky. “Certain strict vegetarian diets of India forbid the use of onions and garlic, and asafetida is used in their place for its distinct aroma,” Ramachandran says.
She has been studying the history of Indian spices for a long time and shared this tale: Silphium, a.k.a. silphion, a wonderful spice from the region of Cyrene (now in modern-day Libya), was in great demand in the classical kitchens of ancient Rome and Greece as a seasoning and as medication. However, true silphium became extinct by the end of the 1st century A.D., as it resisted cultivation. When Alexander the Great invaded Asia, his soldiers discovered a plant that was almost identical to silphium. And that is how asafetida found a home in Rome.
Asafetida appears extensively in Indian cooking as a key component in vegetable and meat curries, pickles and savory snacks. It is used in Iranian cuisine for flavoring meatballs and in Afghanistan for the preparation of dried meat.
It is best used sparingly. Asafetida is sold either as lumps or in powdered form, with the lump kind being the purest. To obtain maximum flavor, crush the lump and saute it in a spoonful of hot oil or ghee. “In making commercially ground asafetida, the resins are combined with small quantities of rice, barley or wheat flour to prevent lumping and to reduce the strong flavor. Processed asafetida often varies in color and texture because of the difference in additives,” Ramachandran says. But the taste does not vary between the two types.
I have often heard people complain that asafetida (known as hing in the local Indian markets) stinks up their pantry. That has never happened to me, but just to be on the safe side, store it in an airtight container.
Here are Ramachandran’s tips for using asafetida:
- Fry a small pinch of it in a teaspoon of oil, then add that to any kind of cooked legumes. No need for Beano.
- Use it to complement the hearty flavors of dishes made with chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, red beans, black-eyed peas and lentils.
- Season cooked green peas with asafetida and toasted ground cumin.
Sweet and Spicy Pineapple Dip
Makes 2 1/2 cups
The asafetida in this dip adds a subtle garlicky flavor and aroma.
Serve with small slices of toasted pita bread.
MAKE AHEAD: The dip can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.
Adapted from a recipe by food writer Ammini Ramachandran.
2 cups fresh or canned diced pineapple
1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut crosswise into very thin slices
2 tablespoons finely diced red onion
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons honey
2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, grated (1 tablespoon)
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon asafetida (hing)
Leaves from 1 stem cilantro, chopped (2 teaspoons)
Combine the pineapple, serrano or jalapeño chili pepper to taste and the red onion in a large bowl; toss gently.
Combine the lemon juice, salt, honey and ginger in a small bowl; mix well, then pour over the pineapple mixture. Cover and let stand for 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature.
Just before serving, heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and the asafetida, stirring to incorporate. As soon as the mixture is fragrant, remove from the heat and pour over the pineapple mixture, stirring to coat evenly.
Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the chopped cilantro.
Per tablespoon serving: 5 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
The Food Section
April 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: I Spice , Recipes | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, asafetida, recipes
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