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