Asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida)
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Asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida, family Apiaceae), alternative spelling asafetida (also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, asant, food of the gods, hing, and giant fennel) is a species of Ferula native to Iran. It is a herbaceous perennial plant growing to 2 m tall, with stout, hollow, somewhat succulent stems 5-8 cm diameter at the base of the plant. The leaves are 30-40 cm long, tripinnate or even more finely divided, with a stout basal sheath clasping the stem. The flowers are yellow, produced in large compound umbels.
Asafoetida’s English and scientific name is derived from the Persian word for resin (asa) and Latin foetida, which refers to its strong sulfurous odor. Its pungent odor has resulted in its being called by many unpleasant names; thus in French it is known (among other names) as Merde du Diable (Devil’s Shit); in some dialects of English too it was known as Devil’s Dung, and equivalent names can be found in most Germanic languages (e.g. German Teufelsdreck , Swedish Dyvelsträck, Dutch Duivelsdrek, Afrikaans Duiwelsdrek), also in Finnish Pirunpaska or Pirunpihka. In Turkish, it is known as Şeytantersi, Şeytan bökösu or Şeytanotu (the Devil’s Herb). In many of the Indo-Aryan languages it is known as hing or “Heeng”. Another name occurs in many Dravidian languages (e.g. Telugu Inguva, Kannada Ingu), but Tamil (perungaayam) and Malayalam kaayam come from a different root.
The resin-like gum which comes from the dried sap extracted from the stem and roots is used as a spice. The resin is greyish-white when fresh, but dries to a dark amber color. The asafoetida resin is difficult to grate, and is traditionally crushed between stones or with a hammer. Today, the most commonly available form is compounded asafoetida, a fine powder containing 30% asafoetida resin, along with rice flour and gum arabic.
This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment and in pickles. Its odour is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma, which is nauseating in quantities, will contaminate other spices stored nearby. However, its odor and flavor become much milder and pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sauteed onion and garlic. In India, it is used especially by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism, who do not eat onions and garlic. It is used in most vegetarian and lentil dishes to both add flavor and aroma and reduce flatulence. It is mainly grown in Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Indian companies Laljee Godhoo and Vandevi, M.V.M. Brand Sun Industries, Chennai are the world’s largest producers of compounded asafoetida.
Asafoetida has certain medicinal uses and most commonly is used as a digestive aid. It is reputed to lessen flatulence and is often added to lentil or eggplant dishes in small quantities. It is also said to be helpful in cases of asthma and bronchitis. A folk tradition remedy for children’s colds: it is mixed into a foul-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child’s neck. In Thailand it is used to aid babies’ digestion and is smeared on the child’s stomach in an alcohol tincture known as “mahahing.” John C Duval reported in 1936 that the odor of asafoetida is attractive to the wolf, a matter of common knowledge, he says, along the Texas/Mexican border.
Asafoetida has also been reported to have contraceptive/abortifacient activity, and is related (and considered an inferior substitute to) the ancient Ferula species Silphium. It has been reported in human tests as both a contraceptive as well as an abortifacient.
It is also used as one of several possible scent baits, most notably for catfish and pike.**
In homeopathic medicine, asafoetida is used for reverse peristalsis, the sensation of a bubble or a lump in the stomach rising up to the throat.