Devil’s dung is the alternative name to the spice we call asafetida. Others call it fetid sap or stinking gum which seems to suggest that it may have a less than fragrant bouquet.
It grows in the fields of India and surrounding countries up to 10ft in height. Asafetida resembles a giant fennel plant and farmers slit open the stalks of these plants to extract a thick sap which will coagulate into a resin. This will be broken into chunks for market but also ground into a mustard colored powdered form.
The pungent and foul smell, often described as sulfurous, with which this spice is associated is said to resemble rotting garlic. With its name derived from the Persian ‘aza’ meaning resin and the Latin ‘foetidus’ meaning stinking, the strong, bitter tasting asafetida is surprisingly popular in many Indian dishes.
Fortunately for everyone with a functioning nose, is that this awful odor gives way to an enticing onion and garlicky aroma upon heating. In fact many strict practicing Hindus can’t eat onions or garlic and replace them in their cooking with just a pinch of asafetida. It is a prevalent spice in many Asian dishes including lentil dhals and many vegetarian dishes. Asafetida is added to pickles, sauces and chutneys throughout India and it is a welcome ingredient in many curries, stews and stir fries across Asia. Iranians use it as an integral part of a local meat ball dish and in Afghanistan they rub their meat in salt and asafetida to dry and preserve it for the winter.
Beans and pulses are often teamed with asafetida as it is known to be a natural antidote to flatulence. It is also said to be beneficent against indigestion and if mixed with lemon juice will also cure toothache.
It is reputed that Alexander the Great brought this spice into Europe in the 4thC BC where it remained popular for tenderizing and preserving meat until falling out of favor with chefs of the middle ages. Asafetida came out of retirement in the early 1800’s for a starring role in Worcestershire Sauce which remains popular around the world today.
So why not give this old spice a go, just remember to keep the lid tightly sealed when not in use. And for anyone with problem deer or rabbits in the garden just remove the lid and it will apparently repel them for you.
Photos courtesy of flickr - ravidhingra, ivalerie, interchangeableparts, Loula M and Hearman