Stinking Gum: The History of Asafoetida
Image Credit: Asafoetida has a strong smell and flavour

Asafoetida, also known as "heeng" or "Hing" in India, is a pungent seasoning used in Indian recipes and Ayurvedic health remedies due to its medicinal properties. It is traditionally used in the preparation of various Indian delicacies and as an ingredient in pickles and chutneys. Westerners find its flavor "startling" or "shocking," but the ancient Romans and Greeks used it in their dishes.

Hing, which is sold in tiny bottles in India, comes from the dried form of a plant called Ferula Assa-Foetida, which is native to Afghanistan and southern Iran. Nowadays, it is cultivated in countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It’s no surprise that India consumes 40% of the world’s total production of hing.

What is asafoetida, and what does it smell like?

Asafoetida is a natural gum present in the roots, stems, and leaves of species of the genus Ferula. The root is brownish-red in color with brown fibers visible inside the root. It smells similar to the root of Feronia elephantipes. The word asafoetida comes from the Latin names "ferula," meaning "vehicle," and "foetidus," meaning "smelling, fetid." The smell of asafoetida is best described as fennel-like, more pungent than that of fennel. It also has the faint scent of garlic. Some people even call it stinky cheese because of its unique smell!

How did asafoetida come to India?

Asafoetida has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 2500 BC, which shows that this pungent, resinous substance was well established by then. Hing came to India from Afghanistan as early as 600 BC and is mentioned in Hindu and Buddhist texts of that time. It is also mentioned in the Mahabharata, which was written around 300 BC. Asafoetida, or hing, weaved its way into Indian menus, the Hindus used it instead of onions and garlic.

Hing kachoris are very popular in India

Asafoetida is native to Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and other countries. Farmers of the remote Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh have started cultivation of asafoetida by using the vast wasteland in the cold desert conditions of the area. As India imports 1,200 tons of raw asafoetida every year from Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan, at a cost of around USD 100 million per year, it plans to save this money by growing it at home. The plant is of minor importance to agriculture but plays a vital role in many cultures across the world. It is used to flavor pickles and curries, especially in South Asia.

Varieties of asafoetida

There are two varieties of asafoetida used in India: red and white. White asafoetida is grown in Afghanistan and is water-soluble, while red asafoetida, grown elsewhere, is oil-soluble. It was found that 92% of India’s imports of asafoetida were from Afghanistan.

Asafoetida: A medicinal ingredient

Asafoetida is commonly used in the preparation of curries and pickles in South Asia. It has antimicrobial, antioxidant, diuretic, and expectorant properties. It is used to treat asthma and bronchial disorders, cough, jaundice, hemorrhoids, heart disease, and diabetes. It is also used as a flavor enhancer and as a condiment in many countries. In India, it is used in the preparation of dals and vegetable dishes to give them flavor. It’s an essential ingredient in the preparation of kheer, a traditional rice dessert. In other countries, it is used as a flavor enhancer in the food industry.

How is asafoetida used in cooking?

Asafoetida is a pungent flavor enhancer. It is used to flavor foods like curries and pickles. It is also used in the preparation of medicines as an expectorant. It is often mixed with wheat flour, sesame seeds, and other ingredients to prepare dough for making chapattis. It is also used to flavor the oil when making samosas. Asafoetida is used as a pickling spice in Indian and Gujarati cuisine. It is also used to make chutneys, pickles, and a variety of other delicacies. In India, it is also used to treat bronchial ailments like asthma, cough, and jaundice.

The benefits of asafoetida

The benefits of asafoetida are numerous. Apart from the fact that it is flavorful and adds pungency to many dishes, asafoetida is said to have many health benefits as well. It is believed to be a great expectorant for people with asthma and bronchial disorders. It also has antimicrobial properties, which make it ideal for use in the kitchen as a flavor enhancer. In addition to this, it is also believed to be a great source of iron, which makes it an essential dietary ingredient for everyone.