Asafetida (Ferula assa-foetida L.)

Дата канвертавання19.04.2016
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Asafetida (Ferula assa-foetida L.)


Ferula asafoetida



حَلْتِيت, حِلْتِيت

Haltit, Hiltit


Asafoetida, Stinking gum, Devil's dung

Used plant part

The milk juice (obtained from the root), which becomes a brown, resin-like mass after drying.

Plant family

Apiaceae (parsley family).

Sensoric quality

Very strong smell, rather repugnant, remotely similar to (not altogether fresh) garlic.


Various species of genus Ferula grow wild from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. Most important as spice is F. assa-foetida, although one reads occasionally about other species (F. persica, F. alliacea, F. foetida and F. narthex) as inferior substitutes or adulterations. All these species are native to Central Asia (Iran to Afghanistan) and are, to my knowledge, not cultivated anywhere else. Galbanum is the dried latex from a related species (Ferula galbaniflua) also native to Central Asia (Iran). Galbanum has an aromatic, pleasant odour and is mainly used for incenses. See mahaleb cherry for an explanation of the name galbanum.


The species name assa-foetida is made up of elements from two languages: Assa is a latinized form of Farsi aza [آزا] “resin, mastic”, and Latin foetidus means “smelling, fetid”. Some very pittoresque names (German Teufelsdreck, French merde du diable, Swedish dyvelsträck and Turkish şeytan tersi), all meaning more or less politely “dung of devil”, exemplify the small enthusiasm this unusual spice meets outside the regions of its traditional usage. Latvian drīveldriķis is an obsolete pharmaceutical term probably loaned from a Northern Germanic language; there is also a Latvian calque velna sūds “devil's shit”.

The horrible smell of fresh asafetida indeed justifies the name “devil's dung”; when I first heard of asafetida's culinary use, I suspected that the person claiming that asafetida was a spice in Indian cooking was pulling my leg (I knew the smell from previous experience). Nevertheless, it's true, and today, asafetida is one of my favourite spices.

More than two millennia ago, asant was already in use in Europe: Legend has it that it was encountered by the soldiers of Alexander the Great on their march through Central Asia. The conquests of Alexander opened trade routes that made Eastern commodities available in the Mediterranean region, and like black pepper, asafetida established itself quickly on the new market. It was used in ancient Greek and Roman cuisines, often as a substitute for the expensive North African silphion. After the latter's extinction, asafedida became even more common, and continued to be used though the early Middle Ages (for example, to flavour barbecued mutton in France). Later, however, its popularity ceased: After the century, it is no more mentioned in European cookbooks.
Other countries have their own indigenous spices with similar medicinal properties, e.g., savory in Europe and epazote in México; both herbs contain strongly disinfective components in their essential oils.

Usage of asafetida differs a little bit for the powdered form and the pure resin. The resin is very strongly scented and must be used with care; furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to fry the resin quickly in hot oil (see also ajwain). This has two reasons: First, the resin dissolves in the hot fat and gets better dispersed in the food, and second, the high temperature changes the taste to a more pleasant impression. A pea-sized amount is considered a large amount, sufficient to flavour a large pot of food. Powdered asafetida, on the other hand, is less intense and may be added without frying, although then the aroma develops less deeply. Lastly, powdered asafetida loses its aroma after some years, but the resin seems to be imperishable (maybe, in some more ten years, I'll substitute seems in the last sentence by is). Daring cooks will find asafetida an interesting alternative to onion and garlic, even for Western dishes. Careful dosage is, though, essential; in ancient Rome, asafetida was stored in jars together with pine nuts, which were alone used to flavour delicate dishes. Another method is dissolving asafetida in hot oil and adding the oil drop by drop to the food. If used with sufficient moderation, asafetida enhances mushroom and vegetable dishes, but can also be used to give fried or barbecued meat a unique flavour.

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