In the past few days, hing, or asafoetida, has dominated the discourse, with news coming in of scientists at the CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource, Palampur (IHBT) having launched an experimental project to cultivate the plant in the Himalayas. In fact, the first sapling was planted in Lahaul valley’s Kwaring village on 15 October. This development has left many surprised, as not many knew earlier that hing, an integral staple of most households, is not endemic to India. Almost all of it comes from the cold mountains of Afghanistan and Iran, growing wild, and collected by talented mountaineers. “Every year, 1500 tonnes of hing, worth ₹940 crore, is imported from Afghanistan and Iran,” says Sanjay Kumar, director, IHBT, who is leading this project.
According to noted academic and food historian Pushpesh Pant, some parts of Kashmir have been growing hing, but it is not of the same high quality as the ones coming from Afghanistan. “Can you divide the history of India by the political map of 1947? Earlier the borders of India would reach the frontiers of Afghanistan. So it is only natural that the use of hing entered India, with some plants growing in Kashmir,” he says.
Most people don’t know how to handle hing in its pure form. The resin, extracted from the roots of the ferula asafoetida, which hails from the umbelliferae family, needs to be stabilised with another substance, which is usually flour: wheat in the north and rice in the south. “The less flour used, the more superior or stronger the hing… . Hathras in UP has become a centre of processing hing. It is usually poor quality because too much flour. You CANNOT purchase pure hing in the market. Maybe govt regulations (too potent),” author and food critic Marryam Reshii put out a social media thread recently, which went viral.
While the plant might not have been endemic to India, it has an inextricable link with the country’s sociopolitical history. The story of asafoetida, however, starts far beyond India’s borders, in ancient Rome. According to Krish Ashok, author, Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, the ancient Romans were obsessed with a spice called sylphium, a resin extracted from the root of a plant. “Unfortunately, we don’t know which plant that was. It was so overharvested that it went extinct. So, some innovative black marketeers went to the outer edges of the Roman empire, which is the mountains of Iran of today and found a similar plant and ended up faking it as sylphium,” he says. However, the Romans didn’t develop a taste for this “fake sylphium” and the use of it in Europe almost disappeared.
This plant with the “funky smell” was asafoetida, which soon after came to India via the Silk Route and has firmly entrenched itself in the country ever since. “The Silk Route connected the subcontinent with Mongolia, Turkey and Afghanistan. Indian travellers would visit central Asia regularly. So, it is not surprising that the use of hing goes back to a millennia and a half, if not more,” says Pant. He cites the examples of Ayurveda texts, which have references to hingastak churna to help cure indigestion.
Later, who can forget the kabuliwallah immortalised in Rabindranath Tagore story, who came bearing pista, kandahari anaar and hing. The story mirrored that of countless Afghan traders, who came to India purveying these goods. While growing up, the use of hing in my household went beyond the typical culinary uses. Any time a baby in the house suffered from stomach ache or flatulence, a tiny bit of hing diluted in milk would be applied on the navel for relief.
However, the growing popularity of hing in the Indian subcontinent is closely tied to the entrenchment of caste and religion specific dietary restrictions. “Hindu upper caste communities and Jains started to eschew meat and alliums, and asafoetida became the default substitution for onions and garlic, which, one has to admit, make food super delicious. And asafoetida, with many of the same sulphurous flavour molecules that are present in onions and garlic, is a pretty good substitute (without the tears and garlic breath),” says Ashok. So, even today, you will find hing being used heavily by the Jains and Brahmins as a substitute. According to Pant, in Kashmir, only the Pandit community uses hing in kaliyas, rogan josh, and more. “It is not used by the Muslims in the state. While being used extensively in the south, it is not used in Odisha or Bengal,” he says.
However, asafoetida, even in Afghanistan and Iran has never been cultivated. So, attempts to “cultivate” it in an organised manner in India is quite a novel move. Kumar of IHBT insists that the ecology of Lahaul is similar to the cold desert areas of Afghanistan, which don’t get much rain. “In winter, these areas are covered in snow. And when the water melts, that is all that is required by the plant. According to Kumar, in the last 30 years, no other institution but the IHBT has managed to get seeds with the help of the ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR). It was in 2017 that IHBT approached NBPGR to start an experimental project in the Himalayas, and seeds were procured from Iran. “We started writing to the various countries in 2017 and got the seeds in 2018,” he says.
Any seed material that you import has to be quarantined to ensure that there are no weeds or infections. “That is done by the NBPGR. And only when NBPGR permits it, can you take it forward,” says Kumar. After these processes were complete, the seeds were then studied at the Centre for High Altitude Biology in Palampur. IHBT has now entered into an MOU with the state agriculture department to jointly conduct this project.
However, Ashok is surprised at the move. “I am sure in the last 2,000 years, someone must have tried to cultivate it in India. We don’t have the dry mountainous climate as Afghanistan. I am not sure how a plant, which couldn’t be cultivated in Iran and Afghanistan, can be grown commercially here,” he says. “But it is 2020, and genetic engineering is making things possible. I would like to know more about the project, if it’s just an experiment or a serious agricultural venture.”
Pant wonders if it is a gimmick and diversionary tactic, while giving out SOPs to farmers. He feels the same thing happened with tea, which used to be grown in Nilgiris and Uttarakhand as well. However, the only two that captured the market were from Darjeeling and Assam. The tea from the big plantations in the south are today used only in blends. “Similarly, if you grow hing in Himachal and the quality is poor, then you will not stop buying from Afghanistan, will you?,” he questions. “Every year, there is a new flavour of the season, a new point of discussion.” Last year, feels Pant, it was khichdi, because people found out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ate it, then it was idli and now hing. “These are flash in the pan conversations and then they die down,” he says.
However, the IHBT team maintains its quite serious about the project. The team is at the moment targeting 300 hectares of land under hing cultivation, taking it up to 5,000 hectares in the next 3-4 years. Farmers in the area are being trained to take this up. “Here, farmers grow potatoes and peas on their land. We are encouraging them to use abandoned land for hing cultivation. This way, that will also generate an income for them,” explains Kumar.