WTF is Asafoetida?
Alternate names: asafetida, devil’s dung, stinking gum, hing (India)
The first thing you need to know about asafoetida is that foetida is Latin for “stinking” or “ill-smelling” (the word “fetid” comes from the Latin). Asafoetida stinks. Like sulphur. It’s not pleasant.
In its natural state, it is a gum – sap from several species of Ferula (Giant Fennel) are harvested and allowed to dry into clumps of sticky resin. You can find containers of these dried clumps at some Indian groceries, but what you should look for is “compounded asafoetida”. This means they’ve ground the dried asafoetida already, and mixed it with other ingredients like starch or flour (mine is mixed with rice flour and gum arabic, for example). This makes it very easy to use – a pinch of this compound (or roughly 1/4 tsp) is all any dish will require (estimated 4-5 portions).
The smell of the product, however, is a concern, I’m sure. Here’s the bad news first: asafoetida will contaminate things left near it. It needs to be stored in an airtight container and the things you place next to it should be as well. Be careful handling it – if you touch it with your hands, you will need to wash them or your hands will smell like rotten eggs for a little while.
The good news: the compounds responsible for the sulphuric smell evaporate under heat. Basically, as soon as you throw this in the pan, the stink will begin fading. There is little reason to worry about the smell invading your food.
The best news: cooked asafoetida imparts a unique, delicious flavour to dishes. It is something like a garlic-onion flavour, but more complex and rich. It’s no surprise that this ingredient shows up in piles of vegetarian and Ayurvedic cooking (it has a number of proven medicinal uses).
My favourite ways to use it are in lentil dishes and with greens like spinach or mustard. It can be used in many other ways, though, including adding it to boiling water or soup, or adding it to batter or dough. It works well in pickles, fish dishes and lentils or beans.
It is said to prevent flatulence, which some people worry about when it comes to beans, so there’s some food for thought.