Currypedia No. 8: Asafoetida


Here at TATTGOC Towers, Mumbai Me A Pony and I have been slightly obsessed with Channel 4's French zombie/resurrection mystery drama series Les Revenants (aka The Returned). So it comes as no surprise to us that, after nearly three years dead and buried, the once mighty TATTGOC serial Currypedia has arisen and is acting like nothing ever happened. What happened to bring it back to life? Was Victor involved? Is it because I’ve been listening to a lot of Mogwai? Well no, it’s a bit simpler than that.

Slick Rick – and check out the dude in the bowler ... nice

It all happened when we were watching the excellent BBC series Rick Stein’s India (highly recommended for all curry fans, it's a beautifully shot and fascinating insight into real Indian cooking and life). The big man was attending a picnic feast (for 2000 people – pity the fool left to do the washing up!) that was being cooked by a group of Brahmin chefs. As strict vegetarians, it was explained, their religion forbids them from eating onions or garlic as "the gods don't like garlic and onion because it heats the blood and it encourages intemperance, lust, wantonness, that sort of thing”. Now anyone that’s had a bash at cooking curry themselves will know full well that onions and garlic are pretty fundamental ingredients, so how do the Brahmin get round this? Asafoetida, that’s how. Intrigued, I thought I’d better investigate further. As luck would have it shortly after watching Rick Stein a PR email popped through the TATTGOC inbox titled “Is asafoetida the secret to the perfect curry?” It may well be ... but what the hell is it?

Eels up inside ya

According to British spice legends
Pataks “asafoetida is a dried, resinous gum collected from three species of the Ferula (Giant Fennel) plant which is ground to a fine powder”. Everyone seems to agree that the spice is extremely pungent, with BBC Food noting that it’s “strong, garlicky, dung-like smell is quite off-putting”. But the word on the street suggests that both the smell and flavour mellow when it’s fried off in oil or ghee. Apparently cooked asafoetida has “a truffle-like flavour and a roasted garlic aroma” and only a very small amount is required to transform a dish, particularly simple vegetarian dishes like daal and aloo gobi, into a taste sensation.

Although the spice is widely used in India and across the middle east it doesn’t appear to have made many inroads in the west. It may be that prospective chefs are put off by that pungent aroma but maybe has something to do with its name. As well as the official name – asafoetida – it’s also known as stinking gum and devil’s dung (fantastically translated as teufelsdreck in German). However the standard name in India is the much simpler and more palatable “hing”.

Asafoetida's relative scarcity in the UK is possibly more down to the public not being aware of the spice or how to use it, though its appearance on Rick Stein’s show has no doubt boosted sales (spice sales website Spices Of India, originators of that PR email, has noted an upsurge in all the spices mentioned in the show, and asafoetida in particular). Lack of general availability could also be an issue although mainstream spice giants Schwartz do carry it in their line so it should be on the shelves of the big four in the UK. Their version is pretty diluted, consisting mainly of rice flour and only 7% asafoetida, probably, I’d imagine, to tone down the odour while retaining some of the flavour enhancing powers of the stuff. The people over at Spices Of India sell various brands of asafoetida, both in it’s raw form and also the toned down version cut with rice flour and turmeric. Generally sold as a powder it can also be bought in solid resin form but the advice seems to be to avoid this for use in cooking as it’s a brute to grate or grind down.

Sparrow's milk and devil's dung ... mmm

I’ve not had a chance to pop any of the many local Indian grocers in my neck of the woods yet but I’m sure it’ll be on the shelves there. (Longstanding TATTGOC member Ravi Peshwari picked some up at the KRK on Woodlands Road.) I’ll definitely be picking some up when I get a chance though, and will report back on how it all goes – maybe a future instalment of Tastin’ With The Tramps will feature some asafoetida-based dishes battling it out against their more common onion and garlic packing rivals ... no doubt washed down with some tasty beers. I promise that any such taste test will also include a blind sniffing of the raw spice for all present – here at TATTGOC Towers we particularly like the idea of spice that, from the sounds of things, can be used for childish pranks but is also super tasty.

So there you go, asafoetida eh? If you don’t fancy using it in your cooking and are wondering what else it could be used for then I’ll leave you in the capable hands of the excellently named CharmingPixieFlora who recommends it for use in various magic and spells (seriously). Maybe one of her spells is behind the resurrection of this very series? 

Rick Stein's excellent series on India is available now on the iPlayer. The clip of him meeting the Brahmin can be watched HERE

Spice Of India carry a huge range of Indian spices and other food related products. If you've been following Rick's series and want to try out the recipes for yourself they even do a Rick Stein's India Starter Spice Set to get you on your way. TAKE A LOOK


jism said...

It's often used in dahls - or any curry with lentils - as it has magical wind-reducing powers. No, seriously.