An ode to the timeless asafoetida
A resin-like extract from a plant of the celery family native to Iran and Afghanistan, hing or asafoetida is an ancient spice.
However, in India, where we use hing in everyday foods such as dals or sambhars, rogan josh or achars, it seems to be an underrated spice used without much thought as to its exact role. So, what does hing do? For one, it gives a burst of umami — a depth of flavour to even simply-cooked dishes such as dal or potatoes rustled up with just turmeric, salt and water.
Umami, a Japanese concept made famous by chefs and food writers, describes savouriness of the kind lent by fermentation, by glutamates in things like tomatoes and so on. It is considered to be the fifth basic taste after sweet, salt, sour and bitter.
Hing produces the mysterious umami in dishes particularly when heated in a little ghee or oil. A tab too much of it, as most Indian home cooks know well, though just turns everything bitter. As a spice it needs to be used deftly. Most novice cooks, as well as restaurant cooks not adept at home cooking, are known to add either too much or to burn it while heating in ghee, leading to corrupted flavours.
A resin-like extract from a plant of the celery family native to Iran and Afghanistan (Kandhari hing is thought to be the best in the world), hing or asafoetida is an ancient spice.
Food historian KT Achaya claims that it finds mention in the Mahabharata as a spice for meats (The Illustrated Foods of India). Classical Roman food was certainly known to use it in stews and broths — after Alexander’s march east, post 334 BC, led to its discovery by Europeans. In India, one of the most interesting but lesser-known use is in the cuisine of the Kashmiri Pandits, who traditionally ate meat but not onion and garlic. Gravies such as for rogan josh are spiced with hing, a predominant ingredient in Pandit cooking, instead of using onion and garlic.
In fact, all over northern India, hing is a substitute for onion and garlic — or it is the other way round: onion and garlic are a substitute for the more complex and ancient asafoetida?
The aromatic compounds in hing are similar to certain sulphur compounds in garlic and onion. Home cooks belonging to vegetarian communities ritualistically cook sattvik or niramish recipes (sans onion and garlic) with hing (Ayurveda classifies food as sattvik or pure, rajsik or rich and tamasik or causing indolence and increasing the tamas or dark guna; onion and garlic are considered tamasik and not supposed to be eaten by many communities).
But fact is that they are actually creating a similar flavour profile with hing! However, since asafoetida needs to be used more judiciously and deftly than the ham-handed way in which many oniongarlic-tomato gravies are cooked in India, especially commercially where garlic drowns out every other flavour, cooking with hing results in more elegant and sophisticated dishes.
Just try cooking a delicate dal like moong or arhar flavoured with hints of green mango or a herb like fenugreek and temper it with garlic. You will find how the latter takes over every other nuance of the dish. Now, try tempering with hing and you may realise how flavours have been deepened but not overwhelmed.
Commercial kitchens and professional chefs seem to have found hing a challenging ingredient to deal with all through history. Mughal recipes do not mention it even though the English traveller and physician John Fryer mentions a widespread use in the food of the common people throughout the subcontinent in the mid-17th century. Similarly, Anglo-Indian recipes in colonial writings of the memsahibs do not seem to use it either.
Hing seems to have remained a humble spice primarily in Hindu homes, not used by professional cooks or chefs for the medieval aristocracy and later colonial sahibs. Within today’s restaurants, this legacy seems to continue perhaps because the spice can be tricky to use necessitating judgement and andaaz hard to come by for cooks not proficient in home-style Indian cooking. Some street foods do use it in chaats and snacks like kachori. However, though many of these dishes such as jal jeera (the water that fills gol gappe or paani puri) were traditionally supposed to have hing to aid digestion, the nuance is lost in most street renditions.
It is only when you have the snacks and chaats at home, does the hing stand out. The same is true of achaars. Though hing, along with mustard seeds, red chillies and onion or celery seeds is supposed to be common in pickling, an oil-less hing-mango pickle is still a homely preserve!
One of the most interesting food tales around asafoetida has to do with Worcestershire sauce, commercially made in England by Wheeley Lea and William Perrins (Lea and Perrins of the Original Worcestershire sauce label) in the mid 19th century. They claimed to have got the recipe from a governor of Bengal called Marcus Sandys — who does not exist. The documented recipe has fermented anchovies, vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, tamarind, onion, garlic, “spice and flavourings”, which went unnamed till 2009, when a company employee ostensibly came across a diary that noted these as cloves, soy, essence of lemons, peppers, and pickles. The last is interesting. For centuries before, asafoetida was popularly thought to be one of the mysterious spices. Pickle in the list may be a confirmation. The umami in your dal and Bloody Mary may just come from the same ingredient.