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Asafoetida

English Name:                                        Asafoetida or Asafetida

Hindi Name:                                        Hing, Heeng

Sanskrit Name:                                        Badhika, Agudagandhu

Latin Name:                                        Ferula assafoetida

Plant Family:                                        Apiaceae (parsley)

Part of Plant Used:                                        Oleo-gum-resin from the sap extracted from the rhizome/root.After the winter has passed the leaves of the plant are cut right down to a tuft. After a week, this is cut off with the top of the rhizome and the milky sap is collected for the next few days. Another slice is taken off the top once the first cut has dried. This process continues for about three months during which about one kilogram of this milky sap will be collected. This matures in pots in the ground into a reddish brown resin.

Plant Description:                                        A species of Ferula native to Iran, the plant is an herbaceous perennial which grows to around 2m tall. The root is thick and carrot like and the leaves are around 40cm long.

Characteristics:                                        It’s really pungent! The whole plant stinks, and the resin, especially, has a powerful garlic, onion smell!If your grandmother has ever packed you off with a tiny little bag of ‘hing’ powder to bring back from India and you’ve caught a whiff of absolutely anything that’s been in your suitcase with it, you’ll understand why the French call it ‘Merde du Diable’ (Demon’s Sh*t!).Even its English name is derived from ‘Asa’ which is Persian for resin, and ‘Foetida’ the Latin root of the English word ‘fetid’.Upon cooking, the smell and flavour mellow considerably to give a slightly oniony taste. It could be called the Indian equivalent of the Thai flavour enhancer, Nam Pla (fish sauce).Although we’re still talking tiny amounts – a quarter of a teaspoon of the powder would be plenty for a big pot of curry. Jains and strict Brahmins, who forbid themselves from eating garlic or onions, will often use this to flavour their food. South Indian vegetable dishes sometimes have pinch of hing cooked in a large dollop of ghee poured over the top as a seasoning.

Aroma:                                        Very strong, acrid, bordering on offensive! Think sulphur and garlic-on-the-turn blended. The powder that we most commonly see in the west is a blend of around 40% asafoetida with rice flour and gum arabic, otherwise the smell is too strong, and the texture too sticky. Green Saffron, however, grinds and sells only the pure resin.

History:                                        Asafoetida has been popular in Europe since the middle ages, and was used for tenderizing and preserving meat. The Romans were also big fans. The ancient Greeks and Romans had such a love of a spice called Silphium from Libya that it was worth its weight in silver. It was a food, a spice and medicine. Short term profiteering and Silphium’s unwillingness to be cultivated lead to its extinction in 1st Century AD. Pliny the Elder wrote that there was only ever one stalk of it found during his life (AD23-79), and that was picked and sent to Nero. Alexander the Great discovered a plant that resembled silphium so closely that it could be used in the same way, and so he took it back to Rome. It was not thought to be quite as good, but was extremely smelly – hence the references to Alexander bringing this ‘stink finger’ west after the great invasion of Asia which started in 334BC. As the Silphium dried up, Asafoetida grew in importance. If you fancy making authentic Roman food, you can use it when the recipe calls for Silphium.

Points of Interest:                                        Although this started off in Iran, the biggest consumer of it now is India, who have long revered it for its medicinal qualities as well. Mentions of it are found in texts dating back to 400BC. India now produce their own, including the finest variety called Hing Kandaharre which is made from the sap taken from central leaf bud. This does not find its way onto the world market. Hing can be bought in ‘tears’ of the pure resin.

Ayurvedic Properties:                                         Cools Vata & Kapha, warms Pitta. Has stimulant, carminative, antispasmodic, anthelmintic. The best spice for relieving abdominal distention, great for digestion, helps with pain, cramping and gas, parasites, worms, candida, delayed or difficult menstruation, anxiety, menstrual disorders, depression, lethargy, asthma, cough, arthritis, headaches, circulation, strengthens heart – palpitations, angina. Energetics: hot-pungent-hot

Precautions:                                                            Aggravates acid conditions.Storage:Airtight container - definitely, airtight container at the bottom of the garden – possibly!

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