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Asafoetida

Ferula asafetida Linn.

Family : Umbelliferae

Other names: Asafoetida, devil's dung, food of the gods

Description

Asafoetida, the gum resin prized as a condiment in India and Iran, is obtained chiefly from plant Ferula asafetida. The Latin name ferula means "carrier" or "vehicle". Asa is a latinized form of Farsi asa "resin ", and Latin foetidus means "smelling, fetid". A related species (F.vulgaris), native to the Mediterranean, is mentioned in the Greek mythology as the plant that helped Prometheus to carry the stolen fire from the Sun to the Earth. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. It was used as a flavouring in the kitchens of ancient Rome.

Botany

Various species of genus Ferula grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Most important species are F.asafetida, F.alliacea, F.foetida and F.narthex, all from Central Asia (Iran to Afghanistan). Acrid in taste, it emits a strong onion like odour because of its organic sulfur compounds.

Cultivation

The plant is a perennial of the carrot family and may grow as high as 3.6m. After four years, when it is ready to yield asafetida, the stems are cut down close to the root, and a milky juice flows out that quickly sets into a solid resinous mass. A freshly exposed surface of asafoeida has a translucent, pearly white appearance, but it soon darkens in the air, becoming first pink and finally reddish brown.

Dried asafetida consists mostly of a resin (25 to 60% of the total mass, 60% or which are esters of ferula acid) and a complex carbohydrate part (25to 30%). The essential oil (10%) contains a wealth of sulfur compounds, mainly (R)-2-butyl-1-propenyl disulphide (50%), 1-(1-methylthiopropyl)1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl-3-methylthioally1 disulphide. Furthermore, di-2-butyl etrasulphide have been found. The essential oil contains also some terpenes(alpha-pinene, phellandrenen) and hendecylsulphonyl acetic acid. Ethers of sesquiterpenes with coumarines have also been identified (farnesiferoles).

Aroma and Flavour

The whole plant is used as a fresh vegetable, the inner portion of the full-grown stem being regarded as a delicacy. The horrible smell of fresh asafoetida does not seem to qualify as a valuable food enhancement, but after frying (and in small dosage), the resin, the taste becomes rather pleasant, even for Western taste buds. The so-called "powdered asafetida" is the resin mixed with rice flour and therefore much less strong in taste, but more easy in application.

Culinary use

Asafoetida has been a popular spice in Europe since the Roman times and has been used much in the Middle Ages (for example, to flavour barbecued mutton), but has fallen in dishonour thereafter. It is still and important ingredient in Persia, and is popular with Brahmins and Jains in India who refuse to eat onions and garlic. In India cuisine, it is normally not combined with garlic or onion, but is seen as an alternative or substitute for them; it is nearly always used for vegetable dishes. The Tamil (South Indian) spice mixture 'sambaar podi' frequently contains asafoetida.

Usage differs a little bit for the powdered form and the pure resin. The resin is very strongly scented and must be used with care; furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to fry the resin shortly in hot oil. This has two reasons: First, the resin dissolve in the hot fat and gets better dispersed in the food, and second, the high temperature changes the taste to a more pleasant impression. A pea-sized amount is considered as a large amount, sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafetida, on the other hand, is less, intense and may be added without frying, although then the aroma develops less deeply. Lastly, powdered asafoetida loses its aroma after some years, but the resin seems to be unperishable.

Medicinal and other use

Asafoetida is an interesting alternative to onion and garlic, even for Western dishes. In ancient Rome, asafoetida was stored in jars together with pine nuts, which were alone used to flavour delicate dishes. Another method is dissolving asafoetida in hot oil and adding the oil drop by drop to the food. If used with sufficient moderation, asafoetida enhances mushroom and vegetable dishes, but can also be used to give fried or barbecued meat a unique flavour. Asafoetida is a useful antidote for flatulence. There are claims for it being used to cure bronchitis and even hysteria.

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