Beyond its distinctive onion-like flavour, hing is an ancient flavour enhancer, used for centuries in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking which supports digestion, fights inflammation, and more.
Hing, also known as asafoetida, is an essential ingredient found in kitchens across India, especially in North India. While its strong, pungent smell may be off-putting to the uninitiated, once you understand its history and health benefits, you'll appreciate why it remains a staple in Indian cooking.
It adds depth and complexity to dishes without overpowering other ingredients. Research has shown hing may help reduce inflammation, support digestive health, and control blood sugar levels due to compounds like ferulic acid. A little goes a long way in curries, dals, and vegetable preparations, replacing onions and garlic for religious communities that avoid those foods. Its distinctive notes are integral to achieving authentic tastes in Indian home cooking.
Origins and Uses
Hing is derived from the sap of Ferula asafoetida or giant fennel plant. Native to Iran and Afghanistan, it has been used for centuries in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. When heated, hing blooms with a garlicky yet oniony flavour, acting as a flavour enhancer in dishes. It is commonly added to lentils, vegetables and meat curries to impart depth.
As hing contains compounds that are lost during cooking of onions and garlic, it serves as an excellent substitute for those seeking a meat-free or vegan diet. Its distinctive taste allows cooks to achieve rich, complex flavours without relying on animal products. Hing is also used to temper strong smells in foods like eggs or fish.
Health Benefits of Hing
Beyond enhancing taste, hing offers several health benefits, being rich in nutrients. Just one teaspoon provides over 10% of your recommended daily intake of iron, important for oxygen transport and energy production. Here are the benefits:
- Rich in Resins: Hing contains resins with therapeutic properties. These resins are known to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities, aiding in the body's defence against infections.
- Digestive Aid: Its role in digestion is paramount. Hing stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes, helping the body break down food more efficiently.
- Anti-inflammatory: Inflammation is a key driver of many chronic diseases. Hing's anti-inflammatory properties can play a protective role in maintaining health.
- Blood Pressure Control: Some studies suggest that Hing may help regulate blood pressure, making it a heart-healthy spice.
Storing and Using Hing
When purchasing hing, look for a light or medium brown powder with a strong aroma. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place where it will keep fresh for several months. A little goes a long way - too much can overpower dishes. Add hing towards the end of cooking for maximum flavour.
For beginners, start with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon in curries, dals or vegetable dishes. Experiment gradually to find your preferred amount. Hing also pairs well with spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric in marinades. Here are some dishes that use hing as a staple:
• Khaman Dhokla: Khaman dhokla is a steamed savory snack made from a batter of chickpea flour, yogurt and hing. To make it, combine 1 cup chickpea flour with 1/2 cup yogurt and 1/4 tsp hing. Add water to make a pourable batter and let it sit for 30 mins. Transfer to a greased baking dish, smoothing the top. Steam for 20 mins until set. Remove and let cool before cutting into squares. Serve with coconut chutney. Hing lends a distinctive flavour to the light and fluffy dhokla without being overpowering.
• Vada Pav: This Mumbai street food features mashed boiled potatoes combined with 1 tbsp chickpea flour, 1/4 tsp hing, salt and green chilies. Shape into patties and deep fry until crisp. Split pav (bread rolls) and fill with the hot vada. Top with tamarind and chili chutney along with sev (vermicelli) for crunch. The hing enhances the potato filling without dominating other flavours in this beloved fast food.
• Kadhi: This yogurt-based soup gets its signature tang from hing. Mix yogurt with besan (chickpea flour) to make a paste. Cook with onions, tomatoes and 1/4 tsp hing. Add dumplings, simmer and serve hot with steamed rice for a comforting meal. Hing lends an underlying warmth and aroma to the kadhi.
• Kichdi: This comforting rice and lentil dish sometimes uses hing. Sauté rice, mung dal, salt and 1/4 tsp hing in ghee. Add water and simmer until dal and rice are tender. Serve hot with a drizzle of ghee or pickle on the side. Hing enhances the flavours of the rice and dal without overpowering the simple dish.
• Rajma Masala: Sauté onions and tomatoes with 1/4 tsp hing. Add cooked kidney beans, spices and water. Simmer until thickened. Serve hot with rice. Hing adds an earthy warmth that balances the other spices without dominating this hearty one-pot meal.
From Seasoning to Healing: Versatility in a Pinch
Hing is a true chameleon in the world of spices. Its uses are as varied as the country itself.
- Culinary Delights: Hing adds a unique umami flavour to Indian dishes. It's a must in dals (lentil soups) and is often used in spice blends like sambar powder. The mere pinch of Hing transforms a simple meal into a gastronomic delight.
- Digestive Aid: Traditionally, Hing has been employed to tackle digestive issues. A pinch in buttermilk or water can help alleviate bloating and indigestion.
- Aromatic Wonder: Hing is an essential component of 'tadka,' the art of tempering spices in hot oil, which infuses dishes with its distinctive aroma.
- Medicinal Marvel: Ayurvedic practitioners have long harnessed Hing for its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. It's believed to relieve respiratory issues, making it a valuable ally during cold and flu season.
Hing, the unassuming spice, has played an integral role in Indian kitchens for centuries. Its rich history, diverse uses, and healthful benefits make it a treasure worth exploring. So, next time you cook a delicious home cooked meal, don't forget to invite Hing to the party. Let its unique aroma and flavour change your culinary creations for the better, all while giving your health a little boost.