Asafetida (Hing) Sometimes spelt asafoetida is a hard gum or resin that comes from the roots and stems of a giant fennel plant (a ferula species of the Apiaceae family which also includes carrots, celery and dill). The plant itself grows to about 6 feet high and smells sulphurous and extremely unpleasant; the gum itself, when it is raw, smells like concentrated rotten garlic or really bad feet. The name comes from aza a Persian word for gum and foetidus the Latin word for stinking (well fetid) and it has less than complimentary nicknames like Devil's Dung and Stinking finger.
The plant grows wild in the eastern Mediterranean, Central Asia and the Middle East from where it probably originates. Today it is mostly commercially grown in Iran and Afghanistan. The gum is extracted by slitting the stem close to the ground and collecting the milky sap which dries to a resin. When first dried, the gum is a greyish white but then starts to turn yellow, then red and will eventually go brown. The dried gum is extremely hard and pretty much needs a hammer to break it up, fortunately it is usually sold as a powder.
The powder that you buy commercially is usually bulked out with rice flour or other flour and may have turmeric as a colorant. You can buy lumps of the resin (but not from your local supermarket) and this is a purer form; if you do get hold of this, go carefully - it is very strong and needs only very small quantities.
The taste is extremely unpleasant in its raw state and not without reason - eating it raw would bring on most of the symptoms of food poisoning, but when it is cooked it really mellows and tastes a little like cooked leeks.
It is referred to in the histories of ancient Rome, where it is mentioned in the writings of physicians as early as the 1st century, and of Alexander the Great, who probably introduced it to Europe from Persia.
It had a predecessor, silphium (also known as lasar or silphion), a spice from North Africa which, in ancient times was highly valued, in great demand, but a major problem to cultivate. Silphium was somewhat stronger in its effects than asafetida (although strangely not quite as smelly) and was used for food, as a spice, and as a medicine. Unfortunately, silphium became extinct at the end of 1st century A.D. and asafetida took its place.
In Europe it fell out of culinary favour after the Roman Empire and was used only as a medicine until the middle ages when it was rediscovered as a spice. It has also been used in the Middle East particularly in Iranian cuisine and in Afghanistan where it is used to prepare dried meat. It is not commonly used in modern western dishes but, in the United States and Europe, it does sometimes find its way into commercial flavourings.
However in India, although not native plant, it has been used for both medicinal and culinary purposes for centuries, with written references going back as early as 400BC.
Asafetida is an important spice to the Jain religion and to certain Hindus (the Kasmiri Pandits) who will not eat root vegetables including onion and garlic; asafetida is used as a substitute for onions and garlic.
Because it has properties as an anti-flatulent (it helps stop wind) and a general digestive aid, it is often used in dishes of lentils and beans and other legumes. I often use it in potato dishes because of its digestive qualities. It also goes very well with fish dishes and vegetarian soups, and it is sometimes used in pickles.
It is also a natural meat tenderizer and preservative and is often used for this purpose both in India and Afghanistan.
Asafetida is mostly carbohydrate (about 68%) but it does have some minerals and vitamins including calcium phosphorus and iron, riboflavin and niacin. However it is used in such minute quantities that these are not really significant.
Far important are its general medicinal qualities. Although there have been many claims for the plant and it extracts over the years, many have been based on the assumption that anything that smells so foul must kill all known bacteria, or some such nonsense. It is claimed to cure impotency, hysteria, toothache and opium addictions amongst other things,
Back in reality, its more realistic benefits are as a natural carminative (anti-flatulent) and digestive; it naturally cleanses the intestinal bacteria. It may also get rid of some intestinal worms like thread worm and round worm.
It has also, historically been associated with the treatment of respiratory disorders such as bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma; in 1918 it was used against the Spanish flu epidemic.
Scientists in Taiwan have reported producing a natural antiviral drug from the roots that kills the swine flu virus and this has been tentatively supported by some American research
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