Asafoetida a.k.a. Hing
Asafeotida is a somewhat obscure flavoring agent that is primarily associated with the cuisine of India, where it is most commonly known as ‘Hing’. The English name, Asafoetida, is derived from a combination of Persian and Latin roots and means, quite literally, ‘stinking resin’. This might not sound like the sort of thing one would really want for the spice cabinet but, in fact, despite a rather off-putting odor in the raw state, it can actually enhance many dishes once cooked.
What is Asafoetida?
The hardened resin you can see in the above picture is obtained from a particular species of Ferula, a group pf flowering plants somewhat distantly related to Fennel. The species, Ferula assa-foetida, is originally native to Afghanistan but is now widely cultivated in India. The resin is the sap from the carrot shaped rhizome, or ‘tap-root’ and, when dried, it is a very deep, rather glossy brown, and is frequently flecked with impurities from the extraction process.
While it is possible to buy the resin in blocks it is much more common to find it in powdered form. I purchased the powder you see above in bulk and the color of this batch is a rather grayish-yellow. Other brands, available in small tins or plastic containers, can be much brighter and vibrantly yellow in color and, quite often, have wheat flour added to maintain the powdered state and prevent clumping.
The powdered form, by the way, actually stores very well. With most spices, it is best to buy whole and grind as needed because, once ground, they tend to lose flavor quite quickly. The powder you see pictured above was very nearly two years old when the picture was taken and, as best as I can tell, it is every bit as strong as when I first bought it.
What is the Aroma and Taste of Asafoetida (Hing)?
The distinctive smell that gives Asafoetida its name is not quite as foul or fetid as the reputation would suggest, but it isn’t especially appetizing either. The main component of the aroma is a strong sulfur smell that has a bit of a tangy edge to it. The overall smell of the resin is often likened to garlic or onions but I would instead characterize it as being more like the breath of someone who has eaten garlic, rather than the fresh article. As one would expect, the powder yields a stronger smell than the hardened resin blocks but it also has a faint maple-like warmth that is reminiscent of fenugreek seed and is actually quite pleasant.
By the way, just as an interesting side-note, the name for Hing in German is ‘Teufelsdreck’, which, as with the common names in French, Dutch, Swedish, and Afrikaans, translates as ‘Devil’s Shit’.
As for the flavor, if you want to really experience Asafoetida and give the raw product a try, be forewarned that the taste is one that definitely lingers in the mouth for a long time afterward. With both the hardened resin and the powder, the sulfurous quality is immediately apparent and there is also a strong undertone of garlic but with slightly floral, herbaceous notes that are a little acrid. There is also a pungency, reminiscent of dandelion or marigold flowers, and the sulfur component carries some hints of burnt rubber.
When cooked, however, the sharper qualities of the taste mellow considerable and the offensive aroma is not apparent anymore. The very sulfurous garlic quality becomes more rounded and sweeter, much like the way that real garlic loses its raw sharpness when roasted, and the effect is really quite pleasant. Some describe the cooked flavor as having a truffle-like quality but, personally, I find it to be more like the rich warmth of ground fenugreek seed.
How is Asafoetida (Hing) Used?
First, Hing is widely claimed to have medicinal properties, notably in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and there are is no end of material on the internet making all sorts of extravagant, and generally unfounded, claims about supposed health benefits. It does appear to be an antioxidant, for what that’s worth, but, in the main, I suspect a lot of what is written is nonsense and I won’t weigh in any further than that.
Interestingly, in India, many Hindus use Asafoetida as a substitute for member of the onion family, like garlic, because, according to Ayurvedic principles, these foods have qualities that are supposed to excite the ‘baser’ animal passions. I don’t actually recall experiencing any such stirrings after chowing down on, say, a double order of onion rings, for example, but the resin is worth using nonetheless as it does add some of the qualities of garlic and onions to finished dishes along with some additional and more complex notes.
To get a good appreciation of this substance as a flavoring agent, try adding a little to melted butter or ghee, and then use the result to sauté a neutral vegetable such as cubed eggplant, or perhaps some blanched greens. In the above picture, some Jerusalem Artichoke was fried until tender and then tossed in a little melted butter with added Hing. You don’t need much, no more than a small pinch in such a dish, and you will find that, even a small purchase of the powder will go a long way.