Unusual spices in curry: Asafoetida
Germans call Asafoetida Teufelsdreck, which means devil’s dung, because of its extremely pungent, sulphurous smell. Its aroma and flavour can be a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but when the spice is added to hot ghee, sizzling in the pan, the oniony musky aroma is evocative of aromatic Indian cooking and Indian restaurants everywhere. In fact, just a small pinch of asafoetida will enhance the taste of any fish or vegetable dish and it’s used extensively in curries, pickles, and daals.
There are two main varieties of Asafoetida: Hing Kabuli Sufaid (milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (red asafoetida). The spice is a resinous gum which is obtained from the stem and roots of certain species of giant fennel tree which, in
India, are grown in Kashmir and some parts of
the Punjab. A greyish milky resin is collected,
then dried in the sun. As the resin dries, it hardens and becomes amber in
colour, darkening to red and eventually brown.
Asafoetida is most widely used in powdered or granulated form or is sometimes sold in lumps that need to be crushed. It’s usually best kept in airtight containers to avoid the strong odour infiltrating the room or cupboard.
The spice adds depth and texture to dishes, especially if used with aromatics like cumin, chillies, ginger and garlic. Best flavours are obtained by adding the asafoetida into the hot ghee, allowing it to incorporate for about 15 seconds before putting in the other spices. Once cooked the spice has a roasted garlic aroma and truffle-like flavour.
Asafoetida appears mainly in South and West Indian dishes. It’s an important ingredient in Indian vegetarian cooking, often used in dishes of the Brahmin and Jain castes where onions and garlic are forbidden.
Historically it has been used in medicines as a remedy for asthma and bronchitis and to treat impotency, mood swings and depression. In
women sometimes eat it after childbirth mixed with ghee and rice to prevent the
baby from getting colic. Added health benefits are that it can be used to
enhance digestion and reduce flatulence. India