Asafoetida is a spice whose name betrays its most notable characteristic: asa means resin in Persian and foetida is Latin for fetid. Asafoetida reeks. It is found in the hot, mountainous terrain of Iran and Afghanistan, and looks like an overgrown and vagrant fennel. Ferula asafoetida, to give it its full name, is a member of the Umbelliferae family, whose better-known kin include parsley, chervil and dill, which are known for their fresh fragrance and flavours. Asafoetida, by contrast, is rich and earthy.
During spring its roots are exposed and slashed before the oozing gum is collected, hardened and sold as resin or, for ease of use, ground into a powder. At this point it smells like the egg and raw-onion sandwich an inconsiderate passenger might eat next to you on the bus. Hungry yet?
The beauty of asafoetida is revealed when it is heated in fat. It’s that slightly sulphurous note in poppadoms that persuades you to order nine when three will do. It’s typically compared to the smell of garlic or onions, and is often used in their stead by people unable to eat them for religious or digestive reasons. To me, frying asafoetida smells more specifically like hot-dog onions. It’s conventionally used in vegetarian curries and daals, but you might try putting a pinch in the heated oil for frying sausages, or any meat or fish. Add it cautiously to begin with – ¼tsp is enough to serve four – as the strength varies between brands. Some are now so dilute that you could waft the opened jar around a ladies’ embroidery circle without raising an eyebrow. Not fetid at all. •