Asafoetida – The Age Old Ingredient Indian Cuisine Cant Do Without

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All it takes is one ingredient to spark an interesting conversation. It was asafoetida (hing in Hindi or Perungayam in Tamil) that resulted in one of the most interesting dinner conversations. Rajni Jinsi is one of the best-known exponents of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. I chatted with her over dinner when she was last in Chennai at 601, the all-day diner at the Park Chennai. She showcased signature dishes from her repertoire of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine during this food promotion. As the conversation drifted towards cooking techniques and ingredients, Rajni mentioned that the one ingredient she does not leave home without is asafoetida.

I’m at the southern end of the Kashmir to Kanyakumari spectrum and asafoetida was one of the first ingredients that captured my fancy as a child. I remember seeing my grandmother and my mother use different forms of this ingredient, an everyday ingredient in our kitchen. My grandmother’s strict sattvic diet had no room for onions or garlic, it’s why asafoetida was a key flavouring ingredient. She was also a big advocate for the health benefits of asafoetida and convinced me to add a pinch of this powder to my daily, post-breakfast glass of thin buttermilk, a practice I continue to this day.

Asafoetida is one of the oldest recorded spices in the subcontinent’s culinary history. KT Achaya (in Indian Food) lists black pepper (maricha) and asafoetida (hingu) as key spices as the Aryans settled down. According to Achaya, Hingu occurs in the early Buddhist Mahavagga, with references to its import from Afghanistan. Even today the best asafoetida comes from Afghanistan, the most popular variety of hing in Delhi’s wholesale markets is the white Kabuli Hing.

My fascination for this unique ingredient was further fuelled by an insightful article (in Whetstone magazine) by Vidya Balachander, a food writer that won her an ASJA award for Food & Drink writing in 2020 and an interesting thread on Twitter by food writer Marryam H. Reshii around her favourite ingredient. This was around the same time in 2020 that scientists had planted 800 saplings of the plant after India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had imported six varieties of seeds from Iran, the first time India was attempting to grow this ingredient locally. India is the only country that uses asafoetida extensively (across regions) but continues to import all its requirements.

Asafoetida is the dried latex exuded from the tap root of different species of Ferula that is native to regions in central Asia like Iran and Afghanistan. It takes its name from its pungent smell – asa is the Latinised form of Aza (that translates to mastic or gum) while foetidus in Latun refers to smelling. Its why this spice’s trivial name is stinking gum and is often referred to as devil’s dung or food of the devils. The French take it further – it’s known as merde du Diabl or Devil’s shit. It’s extremely pungent when raw but as soon as it’s cooked in fat it becomes subtle and aromatic. One of the interesting titbits from Marryam H. Reshii’s thread was how asafoetida is a resin that needs stabilising. In North India wheat flour is used while rice flour is the preferred stabiliser in India.

LG (Laljee Godhoo) has been a household name particularly in South India since the 19th century. I remember my grandmother’s yellow pack of the block asafoetida and my mother’s white plastic bottle that is a fixture in many kitchens across South India. LG was one of the first brands to introduce the convenient powdered version in the 1980s. But many home cooks and chefs still swear by the block. Rajni tells me that she usually drops a block in a jar and then dilutes in water, a hack that she learnt from her mother. It still comes in handy when she is cooking Kashmiri Pandit cuisine at food promotions. Just like Kashmiri Pandits who traditionally don’t use onion or garlic in their cuisine, asafoetida has been the go-to flavouring ingredient for many communities in India like the Jains.

(Also read: These 5 Spices May Heal You From Within)

During the first wave of COVID lockdowns, I decided to make my own asafoetida powder at home. I sourced the asafoetida blocks from a ‘nattu marundhu kadai’ (Country medicine shop that stocks up on traditional ingredients and herbs) in Chennai. You can also source these blocks online and try this at home:

Microwave method:

Break the asafoetida block into smaller bits (you could use a hammer or stone pestle).

Grease a plate with very little oil (optional) and spread the bits. Microwave on ‘high’ mode for about 2-3 minutes. You will notice that they are slightly more powdery.

Grind it to a fine powder in a blender.

asafetida

Photo Credit: iStock

Stove method:

Break the asafoetida block into smaller bits (you could use a hammer or stone pestle). best-known

Heat a non-stick pan. Spread some rice flour on the pan and then add the bits. Fry for a couple of minutes till they become more powdery.

Grind it to a fine powder in a blender.

I found this version even more flavourful and pungent than the commercially available powder. Asafoetida’s health properties are well documented. It’s a known digestive and also a home remedy for colds. But more than that asafoetida is the X factor in many South Indian dishes like a rasam or sambar. It never overpowers the dish (it’s not meant to and the key is to use a smidgen) but is always the key supporting actor that enhances these dishes shine by always staying in the background.

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