First off, let me give a huge thumbs-up to Obama for being the first sitting President of the United States to publicly endorse marriage for same-sex couples, and that too in an election year. Now, let’s get back to Indian spices!
Asafoetida or hing, in Hindi, is a lesser known Indian spice. And, apparently, it’s also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, devil’s sweat, food of the gods and giant fennel in other parts of the world! It does have a pungent and strong smell, but I don’t find it fetid at all. Like beauty and taste, stink is subjective too.
Hing is made from the dried sap of the asafoetida plant. You can buy it whole and crush it at home right before using — it’ll taste stronger and better than the pre-powdered compounded version (which is what I use and is pictured here). Most commercially sold powdered hing is not 100% hing, it includes edible gum and flour.
Like turmeric, asafoetida is very well-known for its medicinal properties. It’s an excellent cure for flatulence (Dabur hingoli, anyone?) and therefore, an essential ingredient in preparations like sambar and dosas that use lentils that are relatively heavier on the stomach e.g. urad and arhar. It is also considered helpful in fighting influenza (was apparently used in 1918 to fight the Spanish Influenza epidemic), asthma and bronchitis among other ailments. One of its more interesting use is as a bait for attracting wolves and coyotes!
Hing can probably be considered one of the secret ingredients in many Indian recipes, especially in South Indian food. More often than not, hing is what you smell when you enter a restaurant like Sarvana Bhavan. It should be used judiciously e.g. 1-2 pinches are usually more than enough in a recipe meant for 4 people. Put it in the hot oil/ghee around the same time as you would put cumin seeds/mustard seeds/whole dried chillies i.e. right at the beginning of the cooking process. It’s amazing how a pinch of hing can totally transform the taste of the dish, but in a subtle and layered manner. If you’ve never used it, please do give it a try!