(OR) In defence of a maligned spice…
There is a riddle in Tamil which asks the following question- ‘What fells warriors and gives aroma to Rasam (lentil soup)?’ The answer to that question in Tamil is ‘Perunkayam’ which literally means Asafoetida (aroma to the soup) and a play of words that also means ‘A large wound’.
I have for a while now been wanting to do a post on what is fast becoming one of my favourite spices in the kitchen (not that I ever cook but that is besides the point!). It is however, not easy to write about the mysterious Asafoetida. A) Because I hardly know anything about spices (but then google and wikipedia can solve that problem- not everyone expects you to have read John Keay’s ‘The Spice Route‘) and B) Asafoetida is not the world’s most politically correct spice.
And I don’t just mean the region where the plant grows which includes the belt from Kashmir through Afganisthan to certain parts of Iran. Without launching into a boring treatise on Asafoetida cultivation or history let me just briefly summarise that it is a spice that is extracted from the root of a particularly hard to cultivate plant and has been doing the rounds since way back in the mists of time. There are accounts that the Romans used asafoetida. Of course the Romans used everything (Makes me wonder how different the world would have been today if the industrial revolution had happened in the Roman Empire instead of much later but I digress severely). Herat (in Afganisthan) happens to be one of the major centres of the Asafoetida trade until this day. However apart from the limited quantities of the spice that are used for medicinal value in the region where it is produced (and to some extent the Middle East) the majority of the produce heads to India.
But the major off-putting factor about the spice is its pungent smell- so much so that it is called ‘Devil’s Dung’ in Europe. I, for the life of me cannot fathom why anyone would ever want to call anything as nice as Asafoetida that but then De gustibus non est disputandum blah blah blah. The spice has such a powerful aroma that Asafoetida is first adulterated (mostly with rice flour and gum arabica as I discovered to my horror from the label on the pack of L G Asafoetida ) before it is sold. Being a die-hard fan however, I recently gleaned from informed sources a store in Chennai that sells unadulterated Asafoetida at a princely sum of Rs 120 for 10g (thats Rs 12,000 for a kilogram, compare it to silver that sells at about Rs 52,000 for a kilogram). It is remarked that the pungency of the spice disappears when heated to reveal a more pleasant aroma of roasted onions and garlic (I don’t really buy that but then I AM prejudiced and believe that asafoetida smells pleasant anytime!).
The things I have talked about make Asafoetida an interesting spice but what makes it all the more mysterious is how the spice is used. As mentioned already the largest consumer of Asafoetida is India. An average meal in Tamil Nadu will have asafoetida in at least two of the dishes (if not more if you have someone like me running the kitchen!). But how did a spice that is not even cultivated locally come to be such an essential ingredient of cuisines in regions so far away? Agreed that trade in spices would have introduced non local ingredients to a people distant from the area of cultivation but such ingredients are mostly always used in a limited fashion. Also a newly introduced plant or spice has often been adapted into local cuisines through local cultivation. I find it very intriguing that a spice that is only grown in one remote (maybe not always remote) part of the world (and not cultivable elsewhere) became so essential to food in another part of the world. So much so that we still depend on vast quantities of imports to meet the demands of consumers in India.
I would love to learn more about when Indians (and especially people in the South who use Asafoetida more extensively) were introduced to Asafoetida and how the practice of using the spice in everyday cooking took root. Unfortunately I do not have either the answers or the time to research the answers but I do hope that the mystery of Asafoetida will be revealed to all one day!
NB: My spell check dictionary did not initially recognise Asafoetida. It now recognises it.
Contrary to popular belief I do not yet use Asafoetida as my car perfume though the idea has been suggested to me.
All enquiries of where to purchase unadulterated Asafoetida will not be entertained as I do not want you raiding what could potentially be my supplies. Muhahaha!