Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kitchen Smells: Asafoetida

I have to disagree with the nomenclature of this wonderful spice. It is not a foetid smelling thing at all, definitely not something that would smell like Devil's Dung. It has a strong, really potent, aggressive, somewhat unpleasant smell but not really foul or revolting. At least not for me, even in its pure form. I love the smell of asafoetida, maybe because so I am used to it, grew up with it, still use it. It is the smell that makes me nostalgic. No cooking was complete without seasoning of asafoetida back at home. If you are using it or smelling it for the first time, you should do it with caution though!

Asafoetida (Wikipedia) is an interesting thing. It is a sap which dries into a resin/gum from the root of a plant that is mixed with binding agents and such. You can get it in powdered form and in solid form from any Indian grocers. Powder is more convenient but I prefer solid because somehow (may not be true) I feel it is more potent.

Asafoetida in solid form.
It is said to have so many medicinal benefits including having an antioxidant/cancer protective effect. Interestingly, one of its components is used to make synthetic vanilla and used as anti bitter agent in artificial sweeteners.

The smell: Smell of 'raw' asafoetida is strong. When dissolved in water, the strength of the odour comes out at its best. Seasoning dishes with asafoetida in fat (preferably butter/clarified butter) tones down the pungency and tones up the aromaticity. When asafoetida, in either form is used in food, it imparts a beautiful aroma to it. It is thick, full, spicy and pungent. The whole house smells nicely when you are cooking with it. The smell of raw asafoetida lingers on to everything it touches, fingers, spoons, pots, clothes, everything! The spoons have to be washed thoroughly to get rid of the odour before eating a dessert with it. Asafoetida and sweet, oh my, not nice!

As for the foetid-ness of the smell, well, it is strong (not at all foetid when fried in oil/butter) but nothing compared to some other things we eat. Hello, sulphurous onion and garlic! The odour is not sulphurous, it is more aromatic. More importantly it doesn't make your breath smell horrid like onion and garlic. In fact it is substituted for those two in cooking.
Dark brown solid asafoetida being dissolved in water,
turning white.
The flavour: Aroma of Asafoetida takes over its taste. Unlike the nose which can perceive many smells, the tongue can perceive just 6 (+1). When tasted as such asafoetida is bitter. When over used in cooking, it is makes the food bitter and unpleasant. The key is to use the tight amount to bring out the aroma without imparting bitterness. A little pea size or even less than that will suffice to flavour about a litre of lentil soup.

Asafoetida is used mostly in Indian food (that I know of), exclusively the savoury kind. It is said that 'even a monkey can cook if asafoetida and coconut is used'. It completely changes the flavour of any the dish. So what this monkey can cook with asafoetida is super easy lentils.
Lentils with asafoetida seasoning: traditionally the savoury part of the meal is begun by eating this with rice.
Red Lentils: 1 cup (200 gms)
Dessicated Coconut: 3 tbs

Butter: 1 tbs
Mustard seeds: 1/2 tsp
Cumin: 1/2 tsp
Green Chillies: 3 chopped
Asafoetida: pea-size of solid or 1/4th tsp of powder
Pepper (freshly cracked)

Cook lentils with coconut so that the flavour of the coconut infuses into the lentils. I cook my lentils in pressure cooker. They can be cooked in microwave (1 part lentils : 2.5 parts water for 10 - 15 minutes on high) or in open pot. Once cooked, add salt to taste and quickly whisk it to make the lentils uniform.
Heat butter in a pan. Add mustard seeds and let it crack for about 45 seconds. Add cumin and chopped chilli, cracked pepper, asafoetida. Turn the heat off and let it fry for a minute. Watch out for burning. 
Pour the hot seasoning over the lentils. It sizzles! Serve it as a soup with some hot rice.

For extra punch of asafoetida, soak and dissolve a pea size (or 1/4th tsp of powder) asafoetida in water and add to the cooked lentils.

In perfumes: Asafoetida is supposedly used in perfumes, along with other spicy notes or with greener notes or with evil things like civet. In my limited perfume experience I haven't come across asafoetida or isolated it in any perfume. Dior Tendre Poison and Balmain Vert Vert supposedly feature the spice. I think I should hunt then down and give them a sniff soon.


  1. How interesting I have never heard of this spice before, wonder if I have ever eaten it and didn't know? :)

    1. You might have, if you have eaten Indian lentils, but it is hard to pin point it if too many spices are used :)

  2. Su is this heeng in urdu/hindi? I have seen it mentioned in many Indian recipes. But we don't use it here in Pakistan I'm afraid. I always thought heeng was dried ginger or something. Very informative article. I will try and find this spice at a pansaar's store. When goras describe an Eastern spice as too pungent or aggressive, I usually find myself trying and liking it :)

    1. Yes, it is heeng/hing. I'm surprised that they don't use it much in there, given our cuisines are so similar! Do try it and would love to hear what you think of it. I'm kind of sure you won't be put off by the odour :))

  3. How interesting! I can't remember if I've tried asafoetida before, or if I'd recognise it in the Balmain (if I had it still, I'd make a decant for you!)

    1. Oh thank you so much! When we meet next time, I would love a decant :) x