Asafoetida has been in the news recently thanks to the first sapling being planted in India, in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul valley. The spotlight on hing would have made Laljee Godhoo happy.
Laljee Godhoo and Co., started in 1894 by a gentleman by the same name in Mumbai to sell lumps of compound asafoetida, is today one of the most popular brands of hing, synonymous with asafoetida in many south Indian homes. The iconic white plastic jar with the unmistakable LG logo in red graces the shelves of many a kitchen.
The business spread to south India with the help of a Gujarati family settled in Chennai, to cater to the high demand for asafoetida in south Indian cooking. According to the company’s website, the compound asafoetida powder was introduced in 1978 as a convenience for busier women, who found it cumbersome to powder the hard lumps of the resin.
The smell of perungayam (asafoetida in Tamil) in Ammama’s (my maternal grandmother’s) kitchen would signal that lunch was nearly ready. The final flourish of flavour in sambhar would come from the drizzle of asafoetida water before the gas was turned off. She always used the hard lump of LG perungayam, never the powder.
When a fresh pack was bought, she would keep the whole lump on the lid of a steaming pot. The heat would soften the lump and she would pinch it off into tiny pieces, keeping them on a plate. The bits of hing would harden on exposure to air. Every day, one or two bits of perungayam were kept in a tiny ceramic cup and covered with hot water at the start of cooking. By the time the cooking was done, the hot water would have softened the hing and a few drops of this hing-infused water would be sprinkled over a bubbling pot of sambhar or rasam.
Sometimes an undissolved piece of perungayam would escape into the sambhar, and into the mouth of the unsuspecting diner. This was always the worst kind of shock for the taste buds, immeasurably worse than biting into elaichi (cardamon) in biryani.
I nursed a hearty dislike for asafoetida all through my childhood. Falling in love with all the things one hated as a child is a sure sign of growing up. I realised the potential of this spice in my late 20s when I started cooking my own sambhar, rasam and koottu.
And today I cannot imagine sambhar without the complex undertones of hing, or the way it revs up the flavours in a very basic koottu, which is just dal, steamed vegetables, coconut and chillies.
Hing is the most potent weapon in the Indian kitchen cabinet and it needs to be used judiciously. A speck of good hing goes a long way but too much of it can completely ruin a dish.
The pungent odour comes from the presence of sulphurous compounds in the resin, which is a sap extracted from the stem and roots of the Ferula asafoetida plant. The main sulphide compound responsible for the odour breaks down in the presence of heat, which is why the intolerable pungency of raw asafoetida gives way to a mellower and smoother aroma and flavour when fried in oil or cooked.
Other compounds like diallyl sulphide in asafoetida also occur naturally in onion and garlic, which is why hing is used as a substitute for garlic and onion in dishes or cuisines that do not use these ingredients.
The quantity of asafoetida to be used in a dish depends on the quality. Stronger varieties which have a smaller percentage of flour must be used in very small quantities in comparison to those with a higher flour ratio—the information is usually mentioned on the bottle. The more concentrated the hing, the pricier the product.
Try these two recipes which are unabashedly flavoured with asafoetida.
A Konkani-style coconut chutney with a strong flavour of asafoetida
Half tsp oil
2 dried red chillies (Byadagi)
Half cup coconut, grated (fresh)
2cm piece of tamarind
Half tsp compound asafoetida
Half tsp salt
For the tempering
1 tsp oil
Quarter tsp mustard seeds
5-6 curry leaves
A pinch of compound asafoetida
In a small pan, heat half tsp oil. Break the dried chillies into pieces and fry until it turns bright red.
In a mixer jar, grind fried chillies, coconut, tamarind, asafoetida and salt.
Use three-four tablespoons of water to grind to a fine consistency. Set aside in a bowl.
In the pan, heat oil. Fry mustard seeds and curry leaves. Once the seeds splutter, stir in the asafoetida and transfer the tempering over the chutney. This chutney goes well with upma, idlis and dosas.
*If using stronger hing crystals, then use a small pinch or two.
HING ZEERA ALOO
5-6 medium-sized potatoes
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
Half tsp compound asafoetida
1 tsp salt
1 tsp roasted cumin powder
Half tsp red chilli powder
Quarter tsp turmeric powder
*If using stronger hing crystals, then use a pinch or two
Pressure-cook the potatoes for 6-7 minutes (keep the cooker on lowest flame for 6-7 minutes after full pressure or one whistle). Peel and cube the potatoes.
Heat oil in a pan. Fry cumin seeds for a few seconds. Reduce the flame and stir in asafoetida, salt, cumin powder, red chilli powder and turmeric powder. Stir well, adding a teaspoon of water if necessary to prevent burning the spice powders. Add potato pieces and shake the pan gently to coat with the spices.
Cook over a low flame for 4-5 minutes so that the potatoes get flavoured with the spices. Remove to a bowl, garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve with dal and rice or rotis.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.