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Asafetida/Asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida)
Apiaceae (parsley family).
Various species of genus Ferula grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Most important as spice are F. asafoetida, F. alliacea, F. foetida and F. narthex, all from Central Asia (Iran to Afghanistan).
Used plant part
The milk juice (obtained from the root), which becomes a brown, resin-like mass after drying.
Very strong smell, rather repugnant, remotely similar to (not altogether fresh) garlic.
Dried asafetida consists mostly of a resin (25 to 60% of the total mass, 60% of which are esters of ferula acid) and a complex carbon hydrate part (25 to 30%). The essential oil (10%) contains a wealth of sulfur compounds, mainly (R)-2-butyl-1-propenyl disulphide (50%), 1-(1-methylthiopropyl) 1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl-3-methylthioallyl disulphide. Furthermore, di-2-butyl trisulphide, 2-butyl methyl trisulphide, di-2-butyl disulphide and even di-2-butyl tetrasulphide have been found. (Phytochemistry, 23, 899, 1984)
The horrible smell of fresh asafetida does not seem to qualify as a valuable food enhancement, but after frying (and in small dosage), the resin, the taste becomes rather pleasant, even for Western taste buds. So-called "powdered asafetida" is the resin mixed with rice flour and therefore much less strong in taste, but more easy in application.
Asafetida has been a popular spice in Europe since the Roman times and has been used much in the Middle Ages (for example, to flavour barbecued mutton), but has fallen in dishonour thereafter. It is still an important ingredient in Iran, and is popular with some Brahmins in India who refuse to eat garlic. In Indian cuisine, it is normally not combined with garlic or onion, but is seen as an alternative or substitute for them; it is nearly always used for vegetable dishes. The Tamil (South Indian) spice mixture sambaar podi frequently contains asafetida.
Usage differs a little bit for the powdered form and the pure resin. The resin is very strongly scented and must be used with care; furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to fry the resin shortly in hot oil. This has two reasons: First, the resin dissolves in the hot fat and gets better dispersed in the food, and second, the high temperature changes the taste to a more pleasant impression. A pea-sized amount is considered a large amount, sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafetida, on the other hand, is less intense and may be added without frying, although then the aroma develops less deeply. Lastly, powdered asafetida loses its aroma after some years, but the resin seems to be unperishable.
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