Monday, November 8, 2010


...aaaannd back into my well-worn and comfy happy place for today's spotlight on asafoetida, weird spice from India, known by many names, including hing, and, according to Wikipedia, devil's dung, stinking gum, asant, and food of the gods.  Hmmmm.  Sounds like more than a little conflict going on.

I actually purchased this item several weeks ago at an Indian spice store.  It came in a plastic container like this:

This container is tiny, and I put it away in my spice cupboard.  Madhur Jaffrey, in her World of the East Vegetarian Cooking describes asafoetida in this way:  "A brown, somewhat smelly resin used in small quantities in Indian cooking partly for its flavor and mostly for its digestive properties..."  Okay, it's not somewhat smelly.  This stuff stinks.  Right through the container.  Opening the spice cupboard, this was all I could smell, so I put it down in the basement, as it happened on top of a can of coconut milk.  One day I brought up that can of coconut milk, and the smell had penetrated strongly into the metal, just from having the container sitting on it for a week or so.

So...what is this stuff like?  Well, here's what it looks like:

Rather like black salt, as a matter of fact, though it's totally different in origin (from a plant in the fennel family rather than a chemical deposit on the side of a mountain), in smell (pungent rather than sulfuric), and use.  Interestingly, if you fry it a bit, the taste and smell become quite pleasant and indeed, in a dish like today's dal, pretty much completely disappear.  The reason it's used in Indian cooking is that asafoetida is supposed to reduce the growth of indigenous microflora in the gut, and thus reduce flatulence.  So where you'll see it called for is in bean dishes.  Interesting!  I haven't expeimented with it enough yet to judge if it works, but so long as you have a place you can keep it segregated from your other spices, why not try?

Asafoetida is added to the tarka (the mixture of spices fried in oil and added to the cooked beans at the end; the other ingredients in my tarka are shown at the beginning of this post) for dals, but there's no reason it couldn't be used in your everyday bean-boiling water, added to Mexican dishes, and the like.

Here's the finished meal, a regular tarka dal, chappati, and a green bean & pea dish cooked with ginger:

Mmmm.  This is comfort food to the very max in my world, including the chilis...


  1. Sorry, I deleted my previous comment, because I thought it came across way too harsh...What I wanted to say is that I have some, but I can't bring myself to use it because the smell is just so off putting to me...if you say it gets better with sauteeing, then I might become brave enough...maybe.

  2. Your food looks SO GOOD. Comfort food, indeed!

    I've wanted to try cooking with asafoetida for some time, but my boyfriend's Pakistani granddad assures me that I don't need it, haha.

  3. Rose, do try it, really! I was quite astonished at the transformation from raw to cooked. You think your whole dish is going to reek, but in fact you can scarcely tell it's there--if anything, the asafoetida adds a subtle, deep sort of under-taste to the dish, but pleasant and sweet, not bitter or spicy.

  4. You sure know how to make a case for trying an ingredient. I don't have access to a basement so maybe I could just keep it outside. Maybe it could even keep intruders away.

  5. Wow, that's some strong smelling stuff. It would be interesting to try though, your meal looks delicious. I don't have a basement, maybe an airtight container of some sort. :-)

  6. I've never tried it either, but maybe I will some time after reading this! That dal looks so creamy too.

  7. Always looking for vegan remedies for being gassy. ;P Interesting stuff!

  8. Interesting to see the word origin for 'fetid' in this smelly spice.
    Looking forward to trying some.

  9. Andrea, who knows how many uses this substance might have? Why, indeed, limit it to the culinary. To tell the truth, though, after the first few weeks, I stopped smelling it down in the basement, which sort of worries me. What else am I immune to?

    Chow, the airtight container sounds very sensible ;-). I, of course, was retaining the original plastic one so I could post about it, but I may transfer it now...

    Fanny, the dal was really creamy. In my opinion, too creamy. I tried to cook the beans in the pressure cooker and either I'm the worst pressure cook ever, or the pressure cooker is one big overhyped hoax. I tend toward the latter opinion, but your mileage may vary. The beans, though they did not even fill it a quarter full, overflowed the valves instantaneously, so I had to keep heating it to that point, then letting the pressure come down naturally until it was done. I'm a soupy-dal type myself; next time I'll stick with my good friend, the pot.

    KTBuns, actually I think there may be something to that aspect of asafoetida. More experiments to follow...not sure how into it I'll get on the blog though...

    Shaunna, as no doubt you already know, asafoetida does indeed mean "stinky resin" in Latin and Persian, respectively. Want me to bring you a pinch to try?

  10. A lot of Indians do not consume onions and garlic, and so Hing is also used in these recipes. It's always fried btw and did you know the brand you bought is not gluten free? So crazy, but they use wheat starch as a medium...


  11. Kittee, sorry, that is such a downer for the gluten-free among us. I wasn't aware of this Hing fact either, but it makes sense. Even Ayurvedics need some flavour in their dishes, after all...

  12. You can buy asfoetida as a resin which needs to be ground up with a mortar and pestle. It's really stinky to grind, but it comes in just a little cardboard box lined with a plastic bag, and the smell stays much more contained than the pre-ground kind. It's a lot more work since you need to powder it, but I can't imagine the resin has gluten in it, and it doesn't smell as much until you smash it up.