When you first smell this it's not something you are likely to forget. But if you enjoy Indian food, you will almost certainly recognise that elusive aroma that you've never quite pinned down. Now you know where it comes from.
Asafoetida root resin
Ground asafoetida resin
Various species of genus ferula grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, but asafoetida is only cultivated in its Central Asian area of origin (Iran to Afghanistan) and is not found elsewhere.
The milk juice obtained from the root, which becomes a brown, resin-like mass when dried out.
Apiaceae (parsley family).
A very strong repugnant smell, similar to stale garlic.
The Latin ferula means "carrier" or "vehicle" and related species f. vulgaris is mentioned in Greek mythology as the plant that helped Prometheus to carry fire from the Sun to the Earth. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes may have used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. The same Latin root appears in the botanical name of mango.
The species name assa-foetida is made up of elements from two languages. Assa is the Latinised version of the Farsi aza "resin" or "mastic" and foetidus is Latin for "smelling" or "fetid". The modern Farsi name angozad derives from ang "gum" and zad "resin". The first element, ang, is also found in the names of asafoetida in many Indic languages, e.g. Hindi hing. Many names, including German teufelsdreck, French merde du diable, Swedish dyvelsträck and Turkish şeytan tersi, mean "devil's dung".
Although the smell of fresh asafoetida justifies the name "devil's dung", it is an important spice in Indian and other cuisines and an important herbal medicine. Asafoetida was in use in Europe more than 2,000 years ago - legend has it that the plant was encountered by Alexander the Great on his march through Central Asia. It was used in Ancient Greek and Roman cuisines, often as a substitute for the expensive North African silphion. Asafoetida was used in Europe the Middle Ages to flavour barbecued meat, but after the 16th century it was no longer mentioned in European cookbooks.
With a reputation as a spice for vegetables rather than for meats, asafoetida is now more common in the more vegetarian cuisines of South India than in the more carnivorous cuisines of its natural North Indian habitat. The Tamil spice mixture sambar podi contains asafoetida. Asafoetida is an essential ingredient in the preparation of legumes and pulses in a variety of dishes collectively known as dhal. It is a good example of the overlapping of culinary and medicinal use of a plant, both adding flavour and also acting as an anti-flatulent when used with legumes rich in indigestible oligosaccharids.
Use of asafoetida differs for the powdered form and the resin. The latter is very strongly scented and must be fried in hot oil both for flavour dispersal and to temper the taste. A pea-sized amount is considered sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafoetida is less intense and may be added without frying, although in this case the aroma develops less deeply.