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What is it with this ancient spice that so excites the senses?
Europeans in India called it Devil's Dung. It may be the smelliest spice in the world.
Even the name contains "stinky" as a fair warning. Yet Indians have been devoted consumers of asafoetida since ancient times, using pinches of it to aid in the digestion of beans and vegetables.
Asafoetida, or hung in Hindi, is a resin, yellowish white and sticky. But while resin comes from tapping common pine trees, the gum resin for asafoetida is extracted from the lower stem and roots of a rare wild member of the carrot family.
The plant requires a cold climate, dry but sunny. It is mostly found in the desert-like higher regions of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Many believe it was imported to India as early as 600 BC.
In India, asafoetida resin is "stabilized" by adding an edible substance, such as wheat or rice flour, and then formed into chunks, granules, and powders.
In folklore and mythology, asafoetida can chase away evil spirits. In modern medicine, it is used to help treat ulcers, asthma, and bronchitis. Elders knew the herb's sulfur compounds as an antiseptic, an antispasmodic, a digestive, a diuretic, an expectorant, a sedative, and a laxative.
Many spices and seasonings change when roasted. Cumin seeds turn nutty. Chili skins turn dark red and have a deeper flavor. But something almost miraculous happens to asafoetida when it comes in contact with hot oil or ghee.
It is generally combined, always in small amounts, with other seasonings in a cooking step known in Northern India as tarka.