Devil’s Dung is the common name for this notoriously smelly spice. The longer name translates to stinking resin. Aza means “resin” in Persian and foetida means “stinking” in Latin. The spice is taken from the gum resin collected from the root of Ferula assafoetida. This is a relative of carrot and fennel and only grows in parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir. There are no record of successful cultivation.
In its raw form it resembles a clump of slightly shiny, lumpy, sticky…dung. In grocery stores it’s sold as a powder mixture cut with gum arabic, flours and turmeric. Chances are your local grocery store chain won’t carry this, it’s a specialty item.
Those who’ve handled this unusual spice describe its stench as being memorably revolting. So why all the fuss for something so seemingly repulsive? Even more pressing, why consume it? Evidently “seemingly” is the key word here. When exposed to high heat (like cooking oil) it undergoes an astonishing transformation.
Chip Rosetti, in his article “Devil’s Dung: The World’s Smelliest Spice,” in the July/August ’09 issue of Saudi Aramco World, describes his first experience cooking with asafoetida. He says, “When heated, the asafoetida disintegrated in the hot oil and gave off a rich, savory scent, reminiscent of sauteed onions. It bestowed a delicate base flavoring to the dishes I made.”
Asafoetida is a common spice in the East, India in particular takes advantage of its flavor. Rosetti found only one use for it here in the West: Worcestershire sauce. Not surprising, this sauce is based on a recipe that originated in, you guessed it, India. In India it’s called hing a word whose origins mean “kill” which Rosetti guesses is another reference to its “deadly uncooked smell.” Or perhaps it smells like something that’s been expired for a long time.
How to Use & Where to Find:
Scoop out a small amount and add it to hot oil or water to release the flavor and create a base for your other ingredients. Substitute onion or garlic powder. By now you are either utterly convinced you want to stay as far away from asafoetida as possible or you are completely intrigued.
Asafoetida became popular in the 1st century. From the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD the Greeks and Romans used another spice called silphium which was also a gum resin taken from the root of the silphium plant. When silphium was thought to be extinct the Romans replaced it with Asafoetida.
Asafoetida’s claims to health benefits date back to the spice’s ancient origins. It’s been used for treating indigestions and the Greeks felt it was cure-all. The most interesting use comes from the Romans who treasured the spice’s contraception abilities. In fact, the seeds are shaped like hearts and scholars believe that this is where the heart-shaped symbol originated.
Parthian Chicken (Pollum Parthicum)
Open the chicken from the back and arrange it in four sections. Grind pepper, loveage and a a moderate amount of caraway seed: Pour fish sauce over them and mix with wine. Place the chicken in a clay pot and pour the blended mixture over the chicken. Dissolve fresh silphium (or asafoetida) in warm water and pour on the chicken as you cook it. Season with ground pepper.
De Re Coquinaria (On Cookery). Attributed to Marcus Apicius. This version comes from “Devil’s Dung: the World’s Smelliest Spice” (see above source).
Eat like a Roman! De Re Coquinaria is a collection of recipes from ancient Rome. Aspicius is the original Roman author. You can explore all the recipes online or order the cookbook which has been translated to English.