Even stinkier than garlic

July 25, 2012

“Eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath,” a Shakespearean character entreats actors in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alliums are aromatics, eaten precisely for their smelly qualities. But what if you’re forbidden onions and garlic for life?

Some vegetarians in India are required, for religious reasons, to shun onions and garlic. They have come to rely on a potent resin as a replacement: asafetida.

“The asafetida is one of the strangest and strongest of all spices,” Harold McGee writes in his classic On Food and Cooking. The resin comes from Ferula assafoetida, a plant native to central Asia that’s related to carrots. McGee explains that the carrot-like root is plucked clean of leaves and scraped till the “wound” begins to ooze. The sap slowly hardens into a dark mass.

Afghanistan is the world’s leading exporter of the spice. Manufacturers there sometimes age the dried resin in fresh animal skin (sheep or goat) to augment its already powerful aroma. They crush the resin and add gum arabic and flour to it.

Asafetida is available in any Indian grocery store; just ask for hing (pronounced “heeng”). You can also order it from numerous vendors online. Remember to keep the container tightly shut, and you can use the product for years. It should not be refrigerated. Chuck it when the spice seems to have lost its odor.

powdered asafetida
Ground asafetida is easier to use than a chunk of the resin.

Ah, that odor. Asafetida is notorious for good reason: it is powerfully, funkily redolent. Most people say that it smells like sweat.

But don’t let its stink deter you from trying asafetida. When you sauté a pinch of the resin in hot oil, the sulfurous spice breaks down and gives out the same smell as pan-fried onions or garlic. This spoonful of oil can transform a variety of savory dishes. In Indian recipes ranging from raw mango salad to flavored rice dishes, asafetida adds depth and complexity.

Asafetida really shines in lentil-based dishes. Vegetarians in India depend on legumes, beans, and lentils for protein, and these plant foods aren’t always easy to digest. Asafetida, however, is a digestive aid as well as an aromatic. Because of this dual duty, asafetida has become essential in much Indian vegetarian cooking. It may have started out as a stand-in, but in certain dishes, there’s no substitute for asafetida.

Growing up, I was not a fan of the mineral-like spice. In our kitchen, my mother stored a chunk of the resin in an airtight aluminum container and chiseled off tiny bits as needed. I accidentally bit into a lump in some dish, and it took me years to get over that gustatory mishap.

Sundal is a traditional chickpea dish made with asafetida. Photo by Indira Singari.

These days, the spice is sold powdered, in a saltshaker-like container. (The powder is usually mixed with refined flour, although there is also a gluten-free version available.) Purists say that asafetida powder doesn’t have the same potency as the chunk version. Still, it only takes a pinch to flavor a whole potful of lentils.

Once upon a time, Western cooks were familiar with asafetida. Alexander the Great’s armies are said to have introduced asafetida to Europe. During medieval times, the resin was used by apothecaries.

But it needs help today in the publicity department. It’s known in German as Teufelsdreck, in French as merde du diable, and in Swedish as dyvelsträck, all of which mean the same thing: devil’s dung.

Asafetida, especially in its powdered form, deserves to be rediscovered in the West. As the popular cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey said on the radio show "The Splendid Table," “For those of you who don’t know this spice: Go, run and get it.”

Author Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist. Photographer Indira Singari is a co-founder of the Indian-food blog The Mahanandi.

Related recipe: Sundal

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Brad Brown on Sep 5, 2012 at 4:50 PM PDT

Hahah Devil’s dung. What a good name.

2. by Syd on Sep 21, 2012 at 2:32 AM PDT

Please, I’d like to know more about the aging in animal skins, such as your source, whether that is common practice for the commercial varieties; and just where gluten-free hing can possibly be found.

3. by Jmo on Feb 9, 2013 at 10:14 PM PST

I was trying to make daal and decided this time I was actually going to find the elusive asafoetida to add to it. I tried 5 groceries stories before finally finding it at one specializing in Middle Eastern foods/ingredients. I wasn’t aware of its reputation for stinkiness though I should have guessed as much since the plastic bottle was sold inside a plastic bag. Even still, its smell escaped. I haven’t used it yet so it’s currently housed inside a glass canning jar. Judging from how difficult it was to find, it hasn’t yet been gained much popularity. I’m excited to try it though. I had the same thoughts about epazote--it too seemed offensively smelly but it sure makes my black beans taste amazing.

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