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, but in cooked dishes, it delivers a smooth flavour 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 thought to be in the same genus as the now extinct silphium .
Origin and Distribution
The species are distributed from the Mediterranean region to Central Asia. In India it is grown in Kashmir and in some parts of Punjab. The major supply of asafoetida to India is from Afghanistan and Iran. There are two main varieties of asafoetida ie. Hing Kabuli Sufaid (Milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (Red asafoetida). Asafoetida is acrid and bitter in taste and emits a strong disagreeable pungent odour due to the presence of sulphur compounds therein. The white or pale variety is water soluble, whereas the dark or black variety is oil soluble. Since pure asafoetida is not preferred due to its strong flavour, it is mixed with starch and gum and sold as compounded asafoetida mostly in bricket form. It is also available in free flowing (Powder form) or in tablet forms.
Cultivation & Manufacture
The plant is a perennial of the carrot family and may grow as high as 3.6m. After four years, when it is ready to yield asafetida, the stems are cut down close to the root, and a milky juice flows out that quickly sets into a solid resinous mass. A freshly exposed surface of asafoeida has a translucent, pearly white appearance, but it soon darkens in the air, becoming first pink and finally reddish brown.
Dried asafetida consists mostly of a resin (25 to 60% of the total mass, 60% or which are esters of ferula acid) and a complex carbohydrate part (25to 30%). The essential oil (10%) contains a wealth of sulfur compounds, mainly (R)-2-butyl-1-propenyl disulphide (50%), 1-(1-methylthiopropyl)1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl-3-methylthioally1 disulphide. Furthermore, di-2-butyl etrasulphide have been found. The essential oil contains also some terpenes(alpha-pinene, phellandrenen) and hendecylsulphonyl acetic acid. Ethers of sesquiterpenes with coumarines have also been identified (farnesiferoles).
Aroma and flavour
The whole plant is used as a fresh vegetable, the inner portion of the full-grown stem being regarded as a delicacy. The horrible smell of fresh asafoetida does not seem to qualify as a valuable food enhancement, but after frying (and in small dosage), the resin, the taste becomes rather pleasant, even for Western taste buds. The so-called "powdered asafetida" is the resin mixed with rice flour and therefore much less strong in taste, but more easy in application.
This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment, and in pickling. It typically works as a flavour enhancer and, used along with turmeric, is a standard component of Indian cuisine, particularly in lentil curries such as dal, sambar 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 forbidden in yogic texts, and places 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 odour 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 use the resin ground up and mixed with a larger volume of wheat flour. The mixture is sold in sealed plastic containers. However, its odour and flavour become much milder and much less pungent upon heating in oil or ghee. Sometimes, it is fried along with sautéed onion and garlic.
Asafoetida is considered a digestive in that it reduces flatulence. It is, however, one of the five pungent vegetables generally avoided by Buddhist vegetarians.