Asafoetida (sometimes called Hing) is a spice that is used extensively in vegetarian Indian curries.
The asafoetida plant, Ferula assafoetida, is native to Iran and grows to a height of around two metres. Nowadays the plant is grown in Afghanistan and Kasmir as well as Iran.
The plant stems are from 5 to 8 cms in diameter at the base and sap is extracted from the stems. The sap hardens to a gum-like resin. This resin is difficult to grate and is usually pounded to a powder.
The pure asafoetida powder is usually mixed with rice flour, gum arabic and turmeric to give the asafoetida powder that is used in cooking. Gum arabic is itself an edible resin and it is used as a food stabiliser.
Asafoetida is very strong and should be used sparingly – follow the recipe and avoid the temptation to use too much.
Asafoetida powder does not have a pleasant smell but this mellows in cooking, resulting in an onion/garlic taste. The powder must be stored in airtight containers otherwise the smell will contaminate nearby spices.
Asafoetida is widely used by Indian followers of Jainism who avoid eating onions and garlic.
Asafoetida is used as a digestive aid and to treat flatulence, and is used to treat asthma and bronchitis.
Asafoetida is sometimes hard to find in supermarkets. Garlic or onion powder can be used as a substitute.