Asafoetida – Stinky Spice, Spunky Benefits!
December 1, 2015
Growing up in India, I was constantly assaulted by a platoon of flavors, wafting out of my mother’s kitchen, where she labored lovingly over her gas stove, churning out delightful delicacies! Married to a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, my mother was used to throwing elaborate house parties, at times feeding more than 70 salivating mouths lining up to savor the delicately flavored Indian vegetarian meals she seemed to effortlessly, and single-handedly, conjure up! Each dish was a masterpiece, each recipe augmented by a multitude of spices, each spice loaded with nutritional and medicinal benefits.
Memories are made of emotions, sounds, and smells! One spice that really stands out from my childhood memories is Asafoetida, also known as Asafetida, or Heeng. I remember, learning to cook at a very young age, wondering, why on earth my mother would want to use such an awful smelling spice? Little did I know of the spunky benefits of this stinky spice!
Asafoetida is actually a gum or resin from a plant called Ferula assa-foetida. It has a very strong, pungent, unpleasant (I call it stinky!) smell when raw, but when cooked, provides a unique flavor, similar to leeks. My great grandmother used Asafoetida in its pure, solid, resin form. I can still recall the sounds and smells of this spice as it hissed and sputtered, when added to hot ‘ghee’ (clarified butter) in a cast iron skillet over a Chula or wood-burning stove. Today, Asafoetida is sold commercially in powder form, wherein it is ground along with wheat to give it a smooth texture and consistency. This spice is stored in an air-tight container, so it doesn’t contaminate the flavors of other spices in the spice closet.
Just a pinch of Asafoetida adds a haunting flavor to curries and dals. Asafoetida is often used to balance out other spices like Turmeric and Cheyenne pepper, thus helping with digestion. Asafoetida is believed to help fight influenza and heal various stomach ailments.
India is a land of many states, many cultures, many religions, and of course, many foods! Asafoetida is used quite liberally in South Indian recipes I learned to make, giving the dishes a unique flavor. I use it in one of those South Indian curries that I and my family love – Curried Cauliflower and Carrots. In fact, my kids eat it right off the skillet, not allowing me to serve it on the dining table. Maybe they get an immense pleasure by doing this – sort of like licking left-over batter while baking a cake!
Watch out for more information about this popular Indian dish in one of my future blogs….