Spice support: asafoetida

shredded carrot and lentil salad

After reading the alternative names of asafoetida, you might be hesitant to use it: hing, stinking gum, and devil's dung do not do much to stimulate one's appetite. Although not technically a spice, asafoetida - the dried resin extracted from the roots of several species of giant fennel - is treated as one in Indian cooking. 

Before it is cooked, asafoetida (sometimes spelled asafetida and pronounced like this) has a pungent, unpleasant aroma, hence its nicknames. Upon cooking, however, the flavor mellows into something that would fit in the allium family. James Peterson, in his excellent tome Sauces, describes it as a substitute for onion, while The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs says that it possesses a "slightly fermented and sulfuric flavor that is akin to but much much lighter than that of garlic."

Asafoetida is primarily used in Indian cooking, although Peterson says that it is mentioned (with a disparaging comment) in an ancient Greek cookbook. You can purchase it in a block, in granules, and as a powder. The powdered version is the easiest to use, and in Indian dishes, it is often fried in oil before it is added to other ingredients. Asafoetida is a component in spice mixtures like chaat masala and sambaar powder.

A little bit of asafoetida goes a long way - it only takes a pinch to flavor a dish. You should store the spice in a well-sealed jar to avoid the unpleasant aroma from permeating your kitchen. 

Photo of Shredded carrot and lentil salad (Hesaru bele carrot kosambri) from Vibrant India by Chitra Agrawal

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