Asafoetida // is the dried latex (gum oleoresin) exuded from the rhizome or tap root of several species of Ferula, a perennial herb that grows 1 to 1.5 m (3.3 to 4.9 ft) tall. The species is native to the deserts of Iran, mountains of Afghanistan, and is mainly cultivated in nearby India. As its name suggests, asafoetida has a fetid smell (see etymology below) but in cooked dishes it delivers a smooth flavour reminiscent of leeks.
It is also known as asant, food of the gods, jowani badian, stinking gum, Devil's dung, hing, ingu, kayam and ting.
This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment, and in pickling. It typically works as a flavour enhancer and, used along with turmeric, is a standard component of Indian cuisine, particularly in lentil curries, such as dal as well as in numerous vegetable dishes. It is widely used in South Indian and Maharashtrian cuisine, which is mainly vegetarian, and is often used to harmonize sweet, sour, salty and spicy components in food. Asafoetida also serves the purpose as a vegetarian alternative to make food taste more full-flavoured and savoury. The spice is added to the food at the time of tempering. Sometimes dried and ground asafoetida (in very mild quantity) can be mixed with salt and eaten with raw salad.
In its pure form, its odour is so strong the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby if it is not stored in an airtight container: many commercial preparations of asafoetida utilize the resin ground up and mixed with a larger volume of wheat flour: The mixture is sold in sealed plastic containers with a small hole at the bottom, allowing the diluted spice to be dusted lightly over the food being cooked. However, its odour and flavour become much milder and more pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.
It is used widely by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism and Vaishnavism, particularly in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra, who do not eat onions or garlic. It is used in many vegetarian and lentil dishes to add both flavour and aroma as well as to reduce flatulence. It is, however, one of the pungent vegetables generally avoided by Buddhist vegetarians.
- Antiflatulent. Asafoetida reduces the growth of indigenous microflora in the gut, reducing flatulence. In the Jammu region of India, asafoetida is used as a medicine for flatulence and constipation by 60% of locals.
- A digestion aid. In Thailand and India, it is used to aid digestion and is smeared on the abdomen in an alcohol or water tincture known as mahahing. Asafoetida in this tincture form was evidently used in western medicine as a topical treatment for abdominal injuries during the 18th and 19th centuries; although when it came into use in the West and how long it remained in use is uncertain. One notable case in which it was used is that of Canadian Coureur des bois Alexis St. Martin, who in 1822 suffered a severe abdominal injury from an accidental shooting that perforated his right lung and stomach and shattered several ribs. St Martin was treated by American army surgeon William Beaumont, who subsequently used St Martin as the subject of a pioneering series of experiments in gastric physiology. When St Martin's wounds had healed, there remained an open fistula into his stomach that enabled Beaumont to insert various types of food directly into St Martin's stomach and record the results. In his account of his treatment of and later experiments on St Martin, Beaumont recorded that he treated the suppurating chest wound with a combination of wine mixed with diluted muriatic acid and 30-40 drops of tincture of asafoetida applied three times a day, and that this appeared to have the desired effect, helping the wound to heal.
- Fighting influenza: Asafoetida was used in 1918 to fight the Spanish influenza pandemic. In 2009, researchers reported that the roots of Asafoetida produce natural antiviral drug compounds that demonstrated potency against the H1N1 virus in vitro and concluded that "sesquiterpene coumarins from F. assa-foetida may serve as promising lead compounds for new drug development against influenza A (H1N1) viral infection".
- Remedy for asthma and bronchitis. It is also said to be helpful in cases of asthma and bronchitis. A folk tradition remedy for children's colds: it is mixed into a pungent-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child's neck.
- An antimicrobial: Asafoetida has a broad range of uses in traditional medicine as an antimicrobial, with well documented uses for treating chronic bronchitis and whooping cough, as well as reducing flatulence.
- A contraceptive/abortifacient: Asafoetida has also been reported to have contraceptive/abortifacient activity. It is related to (and considered an inferior substitute for) the ancient Ferula species Silphium.
- Antiepileptic: Asafoetida oleo-gum-resin has been reported to be antiepileptic in classical Unani, as well as ethnobotanical literature.
- Balancing the vata and kapha. In India according to the Ayurveda, asafoetida is considered to be one of the best spices for balancing the vata dosha. It mitigates vata and kapha, relieves flatulence and colic pain. It is pungent in taste and at the end of digestion. It aggravates pitta, enhances appetite, taste and digestion. It is easy to digest. (ref: ashtanga hridaya Su chapter 6).
- Antidote for opium. Asafoetida has only been speculated to be an antidote for opium.
- Acifidity Bag. Asafoetida was approved by the US Pharmacopedia to stave off the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that killed millions worldwide. It was placed into pouches called "acifidity bags" that were provided by drug stores to be hung around the neck to try to prevent catching the disease.
- Bait: John C Duval reported in 1936 that the odour of asafoetida is attractive to the wolf, a matter of common knowledge, he says, along the Texas–Mexico border. It is also used as one of several possible scent baits, most notably for catfish and pike.
- May also be used as a moth (Lepidoptera) light trap attractant by collectors—when mixed by approximately 1 part to 3 parts with a sweet, fruit jelly.
- Repelling spirits: In Jamaica, asafoetida is traditionally applied to a baby's anterior fontanel (Jamaican patois mole) to prevent spirits (Jamaican patois duppies) from entering the baby through the fontanel. In the African-American Hoodoo tradition, asafoetida is used in magic spells, as it is believed to have the power both to protect and to curse.
- In ceremonial magick, especially from The Key of Solomon the King, it is used to protect the magus from daemonic forces and to evoke the same and bind them.
History in the West
It was familiar in the early Mediterranean, having come by land across Iran. Though it is generally forgotten now in Europe, it is still widely used in India. It emerged into Europe from a conquering expedition of Alexander the Great, who, after returning from a trip to northeastern Persia, thought they had found a plant almost identical to the famed silphium of Cyrene in North Africa—though less tasty. Dioscorides, in the first century, wrote, "the Cyrenaic kind, even if one just tastes it, at once arouses a humour throughout the body and has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, or only a little; but the Median [Iranian] is weaker in power and has a nastier smell." Nevertheless, it could be substituted for silphium in cooking, which was fortunate, because a few decades after Dioscorides's time, the true silphium of Cyrene became extinct, and asafoetida became more popular amongst physicians, as well as cooks.
Asafoetida is also mentioned numerous times in Jewish literature, such as the Mishnah. Maimonides also writes in the Mishneh Torah "In the rainy season, one should eat warm food with much spice, but a limited amount of mustard and asafoetida."
Asafoetida was described by a number of Arab and Islamic scientists and pharmacists. Avicenna discussed the effects of asafoetida on digestion. Ibn al-Baitar and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi described some positive medicinal affects of it on the respiratory system.
After the Roman Empire fell, until the 16th century, asafoetida was rare in Europe, and if ever encountered, it was viewed as a medicine. "If used in cookery, it would ruin every dish because of its dreadful smell" asserted Garcia de Orta's European guest. Nonsense, Garcia replied, "nothing is more widely used in every part of India, both in medicine and in cookery. All the Hindus who can afford it buy it to add to their food."
Cultivation and manufacture
The resin-like gum comes from the dried sap extracted from the stem and roots and is used as a spice. The resin is greyish-white when fresh but dries to a dark amber colour. The asafoetida resin is difficult to grate and is traditionally crushed between stones or with a hammer. Today, the most commonly available form is compounded asafoetida, a fine powder containing 30% asafoetida resin, along with rice flour and gum arabic.
Ferula assafoetida is a monoecious, herbaceous, perennial plant of the family Apiaceae. It grows to 2 m (6.6 ft) high, with a circular mass of 30–40 cm (12–16 in) leaves. Stem leaves have wide sheathing petioles. Flowering stems are 2.5–3 m (8.2–9.8 ft) high and 10 cm (3.9 in) thick and hollow, with a number of schizogenous ducts in the cortex containing the resinous gum. Flowers are pale greenish yellow produced in large compound umbels. Fruits are oval, flat, thin, reddish brown and have a milky juice. Roots are thick, massive, and pulpy. They yield a resin similar to that of the stems. All parts of the plant have the distinctive fetid smell.
Typical asafoetida contains about 40–64% resin, 25% endogeneous gum, 10–17% volatile oil, and 1.5–10% ash. The resin portion is known to contain asaresinotannols 'A' and 'B', ferulic acid, umbelliferone and four unidentified compounds.
The English name is derived from asa, a Latinized form of Farsi azā, meaning "resin", and Latin foetidus meaning "smelling, fetid", which refers to its strong sulfurous odour. In the U.S. the folk spelling and pronunciation is "asafedity". It is called हींग "(hïng)" in Marathi, हींग "(hïng)" in Hindi, হিং "(hiṅ)" in Bengali, ಇಂಗು (ingu) in Kannada, ఇంగువ (inguva) in Telugu and பெருங்காயம் (perunkayam) in Tamil. Its pungent odour has resulted in its being known by many unpleasant names; In French it is known (among other names) as merde du Diable, meaning "Devil's faeces", in English it is sometimes called Devil's dung, and equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages (e.g. German Teufelsdreck, Swedish dyvelsträck, Dutch duivelsdrek and Afrikaans duiwelsdrek). Also, in Finnish it is called pirunpaska or pirunpihka, and in Turkish it is known as Şeytan tersi, Şeytan boku or Şeytan otu.
In popular culture
Asafoetida is widely mentioned as a treatment of choice of the seafaring physician Stephen Maturin a principal character in the Aubrey–Maturin series of historical novels of Patrick O'Brian, CBE set in the Napoleonic Wars. Its smell was said to reassure sailors of its effectiveness.
Penrod, an 11-year-old boy in a 1929 Booth Tarkington story set in the midwestern United States, suffers intensely for being forced to wear a bag of asafoetida on his neck and encounters a girl in the same condition.
In the "Tooth or Consequences" episode (Episode #19, 13 October 1972) of the comedy TV series Sanford and Son, Fred Sanford wears an asafoetida bag to get rid of a bad toothache.
In the "Snidely's Sawmill" episode of Dudley Do-Right, villain Snidely Whiplash tells Nell Fenwick preparatory to her being tied to a log that "Because, Miss Fenwick, beneath this black exterior there lies a mustard plaster and over the mustard plaster lies an asafoetida bag. On it, imprinted in pica are the words, "Whippy Loves Nelly!""
In Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, "beta" children are given a whiff of asafoetida, accompanied by descriptions of "deltas" as being undesirable to play with, during "sleep conditioning", in order to condition them to play only with members of their caste.
In "To Kill A Mockingbird", Scout describes the clean smells of the attendees at the First Purchase African M.E. Church, saying there was "Hearts of Love hairdressing mingled with asafoetida, snuff, Hoyt's Cologne, Brown's Mule, peppermint, and lilac talcum".
In Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye", Aunt Jimmy raises Cholly Breedlove after his mother abandons him. He is grateful for Aunt Jimmy's kindness except when (among other things) "she wore the Asafetida bag around her neck" (page 132 of The Vintage International Edition of May 2007).
In the short story "Counting Blessings" by Dr. James Herriot, Dr. Herriot treats a dog Hermann, that is cured by Asafoetida 
- 1897 illustration from Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen
- The Plant List, Ferula assa-foetida L.
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- Beaumont, William: Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (McLachlan & Stewart, Edinburgh, 1888), p.15
- Lee, Chia-Lin; Chiang, Lien-Chai; Cheng, Li-Hung; Liaw, Chih-Chuang; Abd El-Razek, Mohamed H.; Chang, Fang-Rong; Wu, Yang-Chang (August 2009). "Influenza A (H1N1) Antiviral and Cytotoxic Agents from Ferula assa-foetida". Journal of Natural Products xxx (xx): 1568–72. doi:10.1021/np900158f. PMID 19691312.
- Ancient Chinese Remedy May Work for Flu http://www.livescience.com/health/090910-flu-remedy.html
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- Traditional Systems of Medicine. Abdin, M Z, Abdin, Y P Abrol. Published 2006 Alpha Science Int'l Ltd. ISBN 81-7319-707-5
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- "What's in your Acifidity Bag?". Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- U.S. Patent No. 306, 896 Mixture for Fish-Baits. Inventor - Carol F. Bates of Hughes Springs, Texas. Ingredients are asafoetida, oil of anise, and honey (lines 12-13).
- MacGregor Mathers, Samuel Liddell, ed. (1889). "VII". The Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis). London: George Redway.
Then he shall kindle a fire with dry rue, upon which he shall put powdered assafoetida, and other things of evil odour; after which let him put the aforesaid names, written on parchment or virgin paper, upon the fire, saying: [...]
- Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. Andrew Dalby. 2000. University of California Press. Spices/ History. 184 pages. ISBN 0-520-23674-2
- m. Avodah Zarah ch. 1; m. Shabbat ch. 20; et al.
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Opinions (Hilchot Deot) 4:8.
- Avicenna (1999). The Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī'l-ṭibb), vol. 1. Laleh Bakhtiar (ed.), Oskar Cameron Gruner (trans.), Mazhar H. Shah (trans.). Great Books of the Islamic World. ISBN 978-1-871031-67-6
- Abstract from Medicinal Plants of the World, Volume 3, Chemical Constituents, Traditional and Modern Medicinal Uses. Humana Press. ISBN 978-1-58829-129-5 (Print) 978-1-59259-887-8 (Online). DOI 10.1007/978-1-59259-887-8_6. Ivan A. Ross. http://www.springerlink.com/content/k358h1m6251u5053/
- Handbook of Indices of Food Quality and Authenticity. Rekha S. Singhal, Pushpa R. Kulkarni. 1997, Woodhead Publishing, Food industry and trade ISBN 1-85573-299-8. More information about the composition, p. 395.
- Asafoetida: die geur is des duivels! Vegatopia (in Dutch), Retrieved 8 December 2011. This used as source the book World Food Café: global vegetarian cooking by Chris and Carolyn Caldicott, 1999, ISBN 978-1-57959-060-4
- Thomas Carlyle's well-known 19th century novel Sartor Resartus concerns a German philosopher named Teufelsdröckh.
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- Caldecott, Todd (2006). Ayurveda: The Divine Science of Life. Elsevier/Mosby. ISBN 0-7234-3410-7. Contains a detailed monograph on Ferula foetida, F. narthex, F. rubricaulis (Hing; Devil’s Dung; Asafoetida) as well as a discussion of health benefits and usage in clinical practice. Available online at http://www.toddcaldecott.com/index.php/herbs/learning-herbs/358-hingu