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Asafoetida


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Husband bought a little container of asafoetida the other week. Whenever he cathes a whiff of the stuff, he complains it is filling our cupboard with a smelly sock smell. (Mrs Balbir Singh says some varieties have a nauseous small.) I don't sense it this way. I don't mind the smell at all.

Anyway, last night husband made some fried potatoes from Madur Jaffrey. They were quite good, I wasn't sure if I could detect the taste of the asafoetida, though.

I was wondering how else it is used, Suvir? And what would you recommend?

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Asafetida (Heeng)

A little known spice outside India, asafetida is a dried, resin like substance obtained from the rhizomes of the giant fennel. Asafetida seems to have been a much prized Roman cooking ingredient. It was imported from Persia and the juice of both stem and root was used. Has a smell like that of pickled garlic, which is caused by the sulfur compounds in the volatile oil. The taste is bitter and acrid. When fried in oil it takes the flavor of onion. It has antispasmodic properties. Used to treat hysteria, often as a sedative or in treatment of bronchitis and flatulence.

I react like your husband to Asafoetida. But once in food, it makes me smile in happiness.

It lends to dishes a complexity that one will never find in many foods people argue about. Spices in Indian foods are used in a manner that most cultures have never begun to experience just yet. The seeds have been sown, in centuries to follow, more chefs in the west, will come to a point where they have mastered the play of spices. It is already being tested by many chefs, and it will reach a point of worthy discussion when the testing process has moved to one of sustained understanding of the many subtle nuances of every spice that a chef has to understand. Just as for the Indian in me, I fail to grasp what is so special about a gratin, even though I love eating it every so often. Asafoetida is one such spice or ingredient. One could live without it, but to be exposed to it and understand it, elevates one to a level one would not know without correct exposure. It is one of those ingredients that make any cuisine unique and a triumph. But many would never know of these ingredients. Since they are also underexposed in cultures where they come from.

Asafoetida gives dishes a complex flavoring that would go without notice to those that have not enjoyed its subtle but bold essence.

It gives to dishes a garlic-onion aroma and flavor.

It was used in India by vegetarians that did not eat any root vegetables to add a savory taste to foods where garlic and onions were missing.

Asafoetida in a resin form has little if any smell, but when ground from that, it will make the entire kitchen get a sulphrous odor. It is supposed to have the smell of rotten eggs or fried garlic. It is thus used in very small amounts and kept in sealed containers and some like me put those containers in zip-loc bags.

I use it in many of my vegetable stir-fries, it is an absolute must in most of my lentil and bean Daal recipes. I also use it for several other Indian recipes. Sometimes in larger amounts and at other times just a very small pinch.

When I temper Daals I always add a pinch into the oil just as I am getting ready to finish frying the other spices. The sizzling asafoetida powder imparts a great aroma into the oil and is a perfect way of finising lentils and beans and it's medicinal properties help us in digesting beans and lentils.

I reccomend using it for any and all Daal preparations you might make. It is also great used in tiny pinches with many vegetable dishes. In fact in India we make a lentil and rice preparation in which Asafoetida plays a crucial role. It is called Khitcheree.

Some people add it to the tamarind and date sauce you eat in most restaurants as also in several of the street food recipes. It is also a key ingredient in many pickles and chutneys.

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Thanks Suvir for your detailed reponse. What an interesting history. I found a Saag Vali Khichri in Jaffrey, so I'll give that a go sometime. And when I'm on the verge of hysteria, I must remember to have some asafetida on hand.

If you have a chance, can you say more about other resins/spices used in Inidan cooking that have medicinal qualities? I see that lime pickles (that have asafetida in them) are suggested for digestion.

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Lime or lemon pickles have been used for a very long time in Indian food for curing stomach and other digestive ailments. Even nausea. They have the properties of citrus that help and in addition several other spices that are believed to heal- carom seeds, cumin seeds, asafoetida, ginger and many times several others.

If you go to my web-site and study the spice section, you will find at least a few medicinal properties of spices shared there. I am in no way endorsing these as being true or scientific. On the contrary, I always tell people that they should try medicine as we know it today before trying these holistic approaches.

I feel for these holistic ways to work in medical situations today, we need to have great faith and belief in their system. Or else nothing much can take place.

I for one have never believed in these as more than just old wives tales. But as my family and I come to grips with my fathers poor health lately and his having to deal with mortality at a very young age due to medical reasons, I see in him a man who was so not into this way of thinking, but is now willing to listen to those he once thought of as "psychofants or even mad men". But as he deals daily with the failure of medicine in correcting what happened to him due to modern day medicine, he now is willing to give holistic approach to life and medicine a try. But as he says himself, he has little faith and may be way far in the realm of being sick to find any miracle or cure there.

My reason to share this personal tragedy that I deal with daily, is to share with you how I am not endorsing anything that one has believed for millenia to be a medicinal property of a spice. But also to share with you that many do believe in it and have found reasonable strength from it. Am I a believer? Nope. But am I also simply dismissing the magic that may exist in these old tales? No!

"Somewhere in the middle of each of our understanding of life, life really exists and thrives. Those that try and conform life to their own narrow paths will only find failure and anger.

We are too small in the larger realm of the world. Our own miseries and worries are too trivial in the larger picture. Life has its own course to live. We can either decide to live it as it moves along or fight it and obsess endlessly about what was in the past or kill the present as we maim the future. It is our call. I choose to educate myself about the past, accept, learn, forgive and move on. Or else, I fear like many others, I would be left behind from most of lives unexpected but ample magic."

And that is why, I always tell friends that are suffering or sick that they should be open to any and all forms of healing available to them. I only caution them to not be fanatic about any. I do feel medicine as a science has far greater strength than what herbs and spices may offer today. If only for one reason, that we have lost much of the wisdom that existed about these natural cures to maladies in our very science driven world today. Thus, our decisions today need to be based on reality.

I put in quotation marks above that which I had written as a private note to someone. It resonated with me and has shared with me what I really believe in. It works well in this dialogue so I share it here.

Suvir's Spice Page

There are other far more detailed sources available for those that care to study spices in detail. My notes are only what I have learned through my conversations with elders. It is a part of the great Indian lore. But as in any culture of such ancient history, lores are often woven intricately with myth.

But an Indian myth that was also used in Ancient Greece was the use of Asafoetida as a contraceptive and also for performing abortive procedures in early stages. And not only have I heard of this from Indian grandmas and midwives but also from doctors and cultural historians around the world as I travel.

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Thanks for the link. An interesting topic, and it might warrant a thread of its own on General. I guess with the major studies that the NIH is conducting on alternative treatments, we may be able to find empirical evidence supporting some of the traditional methods. I wish your father all the best.

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With regards to my father, thanks for your kind wishes.

I feel melancholic and yet hopeful.

It is not easy to see a man in his fifties be told he has only months to live.

Indians and for that matter Hindus are immensely hopeful. And I see that part of each of my family members come to play at this crucial time. We have realized how hope can keep us dignified and help us find some sense in lifes yearning for it's own course, and in that goal, inflicting what seems painful to our nuclear family. In realizing that, each of my siblings and my mother have found some meaning for what could only be looked at as a tragedy and could kill any happiness we can share with my father as he struggles in his hope for more time with those he loves.

I realize my father and my attachment to him is very limited in the larger reality of life. His happiness, suffering, life or death are insignificant in the much larger and more dynamic world. We all are reduced to nothing when we realize how grand the larger scheme of this world is. And in doing so, we also can find great hope. For then, our miseries are not great anymore. They are minute and insignificant.

Maybe you can start the thread in the Indian forum. We can have others visit and put a link to it from the general board. That could work very well. It will ensure the participation of those that are intrinsically curious about India and spices, and yet be open to those that want to learn more. Being a small forum, it will not get lost quickly. In the Indian forum, your new thread will find a place of prominence, not to say that it makes the thread any lesser or better if it were placed elsewhere.

Yvonne, I have stories about spices and their uses and I learned poems and riddles about spices and vegetables that I would love to share. Maybe someday I will write a book about them. They are so common to Indian homes, that friends laugh when I recite them as an adult. They are taken back to their childhood memories. We laugh as we realize that so many years later, these nursery rhymes, tales from grandma we heard as kids have so much more meaning than we would have ever ascribed to them.

I look forward to your thread. I am sure we will all learn a lot from what there is available as studies on the mysterious yet meaningful world of spices and produce.

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