Asafoetida is native to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A perennial plant growing to about six feet high, it is one of several species of ferula, or giant fennel. Asafoetida has finely toothed leaves, clusters of white or yellow flowers in umbels and a hollow stem growing from a fleshy taproot. It is the root that produces the spice. In summer, the stems are cut from four-year-old plants and the root is sliced. A gum is excreted which dries into a resin. This is then crushed into a powder to produce the spice.
The name originates with the Persian word Aza, which means resin, and the Latin word Fetida, which means smelly. Stinking gum (another name for the spice) earns its name. When bought, you will usually find it tripled wrapped for the smell can be quite offensive. However, sauté it lightly in oil and it develops a pleasant onion or garlic like aroma. A mere pinch is all you need in any recipe.
Medicinally, asafoetida is used in Middle Eastern and Indian herbal medicine for simple digestive problems such as gas, bloating, indigestion and constipation. It has been used for respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma and whooping cough. Like garlic, asafoetida’s volatile oil contains components such as disulphides that leave the body via the respiratory system and aid in the coughing up of congested mucus. Asafoetida has also been used as a sedative. It also thins the blood and lowers blood pressure. Although safe for adults, asafoetida may be harmful to young babies.
One beneficial use for asafoetida’s unpleasant smell is that of a natural pesticide. Two of the sulfur compounds isolated from asafoetida are similar to the insect repelling qualities of marigolds and nasturtiums. Asafoetida’s odour will also repel deer and rabbits.
In magic and mythology, asafoetida is used to gain insight and to banish all negative energy, evil spirits and demons. It is used to invoke male gods, especially those of a phallic nature. One myth claims that asafoetida developed from the semen of a god of fertility when it soaked into the earth. Asafoetida is sometimes worn around the neck as an amulet to ward off colds and fevers.
Although very reasonably priced today, in ancient times it was a precious and expensive condiment. The Roman epicure Apicius recommended adding an uncrushed piece of asafoetida resin to a jar of pine nuts. When the asafoetida flavour was required, a few of the pine nuts were crumbled and added to the dish.
Culinary uses of asafoetida include the flavouring of pickles and sauces (it is one of the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce) and it is used extensively in the Middle East to flavour spicy vegetable dishes. Some people simply rub their broiling rack with the spice prior to cooking meat.
Here are a couple of recipes that can be prepared individually or together as a vegetarian meal or as accompaniments to a meat dish.
Nutty Rice with Mushrooms
- One cup of long grain brown rice, cooked
- 8 – 10 mushrooms, sliced
- A large fistful of chopped fresh parsley
- A small fistful of pine nuts
- Juice of half a lemon
- Two Tbsp. butter
- Pinch of ground asafoetida
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Sauté the mushrooms in the butter, pouring the lemon juice over them after they are nicely browned. Lightly roast the pine nuts for a few minutes in a small, unoiled pan, which should be constantly shaken. Mix all the ingredients into the cooked rice and reheat if necessary. Serves four.
- About 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
- 5 medium-sized fresh tomatoes, cut up
- 2 fresh jalapeno peppers, diced
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- Quarter tsp. turmeric
- Pinch of ground asafoetida
- Half tsp. ground cumin
- 2 tsp. salt
- Quarter tsp. brown sugar.
Heat the oil over a medium heat in a deep-sided, lidded frying pan. Add the spices in the order listed allowing a few seconds between additions. Stir in the mushrooms and lightly brown them before adding the tomatoes, salt and sugar. Cook over medium to high heat uncovered until the liquid from the tomatoes has been reduced to a stew-like consistency. Cover and reduce heat to simmer. Serve after about 10 minutes of simmering or, even better, prepare ahead of time, allow to cool and then reheat. A few hours of dormancy really develops the flavours. This recipe will serve 2-4 as a side dish. Increase ingredients proportionately if serving more or if preparing as main dish.
“ASAF0ETIDA (Ferula foetida): DEVIL’S DUNG” is excerpted from Herbwise: growing cooking wellbeing