Asafoetida – The Age-Old Indian Cooking Ingredient You Can’t Do Without
All it takes is one ingredient to spark an interesting conversation. It was asafoetida (hing in Hindi or Perungayam in Tamil) that gave rise to one of the most interesting dinner conversations. Rajni Jinsi is one of the best known representatives of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. I chatted with her over dinner on her last visit to Chennai at 601, the all day dining restaurant at Park Chennai. She showcased iconic dishes from her Kashmiri Pandit cooking repertoire during this food promotion. As the conversation drifted to cooking techniques and ingredients, Rajni mentioned that the one ingredient she doesn’t leave home without is asafoetida.
I’m on the southern end of the spectrum from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and asafoetida was one of the first ingredients that captivated me as a child. I remember seeing my grandmother and my mother using different forms of this ingredient, an everyday ingredient in our kitchen. My grandmother’s strict sattvic diet had no place for onions or garlic, which is why asafoetida was a key flavoring 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 glass of light buttermilk after breakfast, a practice I continue to this day.
Asafoetida is one of the oldest spices recorded in the culinary history of the subcontinent. KT Achaya (in Indian Food) lists black pepper (maricha) and asafoetida (hingu) as key spices when the Aryans settled. According to Achaya, Hingu occurs in the early Buddhist Mahavagga, with references to its importation from Afghanistan. Even today the best asafoetida comes from Afghanistan, the most popular variety of hing in the Delhi wholesale markets is the white Kabuli Hing.
My fascination with this unique ingredient was further fueled by an insightful article (in Whetstone magazine) by Vidya Balachander, a food writer that won her an ASJA Award for Food and Drink Writing in 2020 and an interesting thread on Twitter by food writer Marryam H. Reshii about her favorite ingredient. It was around the same time in 2020 that scientists planted 800 saplings of the plant after the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) imported six seed varieties from Iran, the first time that India was trying to grow this ingredient locally. India is the only country that uses asafoetida extensively (in all regions) but continues to import all of its needs.
Asafoetida is the dried latex exuded from the taproot of different species of Ferula native to Central Asian regions like Iran and Afghanistan. It gets its name from its pungent smell – asa is the Latinized form of Aza (which translates to mastic or gum) while foetidus in Latun refers to smell. This is why the trivial name for this spice is stink gum and is often referred to as devil dung or demon food. The French take it a step further – it’s called la merde du Diabl or la merde du diable. It is extremely pungent when raw, but as soon as it is cooked in fat it becomes subtle and aromatic. One of the interesting things in Marryam H. Reshii’s thread was how asafoetida is a resin that needs to be stabilized. In northern India, wheat flour is used while rice flour is the preferred stabilizer in India.
LG (Laljee Godhoo) has been a household name especially in South India since the 19th century. I remember my grandmother’s yellow packet of asafoetida block and my mother’s white plastic bottle which is an integral part of many South Indian cuisines. LG was one of the first brands to introduce the convenient powdered version back in the 1980s. But many home cooks and chefs swear by the block. Rajni tells me she usually drops a block in a jar and then dilute it in water, a trick she learned from her mother. This always comes in handy when cooking Kashmiri Pandit cuisine during food promotions. Just like the Kashmiri pandits who traditionally do not use onion or garlic in their cooking, asafoetida has been the flavoring ingredient of choice for many communities in India like the Jains.
(Also read: These 5 spices can heal you from the inside)
During the first wave of COVID lockdowns, I decided to make my own asafoetida powder at home. I got the asafoetida blocks from a ‘nattu marundhu kadai’ (country medicine shop that stocks traditional ingredients and herbs) in Chennai. You can also get these blocks online and try this at home:
Break the block of asafoetida into smaller pieces (you can use a hammer or a stone pestle).
Grease a plate with very little oil (optional) and spread the pieces. Microwave on “high” mode for about 2-3 minutes. You will notice that they are slightly more powdery.
Grind it into a fine powder in a blender.
Break the block of asafoetida into smaller pieces (you can use a hammer or a stone pestle). better known
Heat a nonstick skillet. Spread a little rice flour on the pan then add the pieces. Fry for a few minutes until they become more powdery.
Grind it into a fine powder in a blender.
I found this version even tastier and tangier than the commercially available powder. The health properties of Asafoetida are well documented. It is 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. He never dominates the dish (it’s not supposed to and the key is to use a little) but is always the key supporting player who enhances the shine of those dishes by always staying in the background.