Also spelled asafoetida. Otherwise known as 'stinking gum' and 'devil's dung' in English, and as 'hing' in Bengali, Gujrati, and Hindi.

Asafetida is a resin obtained by drying the milk from the root of Ferula asafoetida and other plants of the genus Ferula, which is part of the parsley family (Apiaceae). The pure resin is light brown in color.

The name asafetida is derived from a latinized form of the Farsi word 'aza', meaning 'resin', and from the Latin word 'foetidus', meaning 'smelling' or 'fetid'.

As is probably already clear, asafetida absolutely stinks. It has a breath-takingly rank odor that I am at a loss to adequately describe. Slightly sulphurous, vaguely reminiscent of dirt, or of something rotting, and yes, there's a sort of shit-smelling undertone. If you ever get to smell pure asafetida, the very last thing you will want to do is eat it.

And yet not only is it added to food, it is also considered a delicate and valuable spice, and quite rightly so in my opinion. When a tiny amount of asafetida is added to hot oil and lightly fried for a few seconds, the smell and taste of it changes utterly. I have heard it said that it can be used as an alternative to onion and garlic in Indian food, and indeed Brahmins in India who do not eat garlic use asafetida in its place. Personally though, I have to say that the taste bears only a passing resemblance to onion or garlic. It adds instead an intriguing bitter-sweet, slightly earthy tang, which adds richness and depth to many dishes and complements the flavors of many other Indian spices.

Asafetida is available commercially in two forms: as pure resin (in lumps or powdered) and in a diluted powder form, which is actually a mixture of resin and corn flour, often with salt and some coloring added too. I do not really recommend the diluted kind, although many people do use it. If you ever get the chance to buy pure asafetida though, give it a try. Inevitably you will smell it, and after you do so you will have to be very brave indeed to use it in your food; but if you are cautious and sparing with it and fry it properly you will be very pleasantly surprised.

If you love deep green leafy vegetables*, try this!

*for example, collard greens, kale, or chard.

This I was taught by my vegetarian elders years ago:

  1. Prepare greens by washing, shaking dry, and chopping or tearing into strips.
  2. Prepare a tall, heavy-bodied cookpot by heating a small pool (~ 1 Tbsp) of oil in it, until just short of smoking.
  3. Prepare yourself with heat-resistant stirring implement of choice.
  4. Add one small pinch of asafœtida to the hot oil.
  5. Watch as it turns brown (a few seconds), but wait no longer!
  6. Dump the entire pile of greens in the cookpot and stir, stir, stir.
  7. As the volume of greens reduces, use your senses of texture and smell to determine a good finish point.
  8. Remove pot from heat and remove greens from pot before they grow limp or change color too much.

Notice what you did not have to do. You did not have to chop onions or garlic until tearful. You did not have to locate and measure a number of different spices. You threw a single pinch of a single ingredient into that hot oil, cooked your greens in it...

How could just a pinch of this one substance do all that?

Magic! Serve these greens to a discerning veggie connoisseur and they will be convinced that you spent far more time and effort than you actually did.

"Wow, how did you spice these? Let me guess -- onions, garlic (but just the perfect light touch of each one!), a tiny dash of soy sauce, perhaps... hmm, white pepper or something? Man, what else is in there? I can't believe this is just greens!"

Yes, you have removed all lingering bitterness, or that chlorophyllish "help, it's turning me into a plant" taste, from those greens, and created rather a savory, almost nutty goodness that could make a chomper of greens out of anyone. Try this on anyone who could use more roughage in their diet, and especially on anyone who needs extra calcium*. Better yet, try it on yourself. It's a quick easy entree, and makes a fine dish when served with rice.

*(Deep leafy greens contain less calcium per gram than dairy products, but the calcium they do contain is in a far more biologically available form.)

Viva asafœtida. It's pretty hard to find in the English speaking world. Sometimes it can be found where middle eastern foods are sold, or at the occasional natural foods store. The good news is, at a pinch per meal, that inexpensive 4oz container of it will last you for years; and, being a resin, it hardly loses any flavor over time.

Asafetida gets a bad rap from some, and is highly touted by others, and a clear accounting of something as subjective as a flavor is hard to give. But perhaps we can do a bit better than the entries above.

Asafetida smells like you took a clove of garlic, a slice of onion, and a slice of another onion that has been in the compost for two weeks, and mixed them together. This improves with cooking, but the first wave of scent may trigger all of your "Warning -- Rotten Food!" alarms, and may put you off the spice for good. After cooking, the sulfurous, rotting tang is still there, just more mild. Just as humans tune out boar taint, sulfurous eggs, the fermented goodness of wine, kimchi, and vinegar, asafetida also has enough goodness to convince your brain stem that it's good eating. You get used to it very quickly... or you don't, and you hate it forever.

As`a*fet"i*da, As`a*fet"i*da (#), n. [Asa + L. foetidus fetid.]

The fetid gum resin or inspissated juice of a large umbelliferous plant (Ferula asafetida) of Persia and the East India. It is used in medicine as an antispasmodic.

[Written also assafetida.]

© Webster 1913.

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