Seasonings: Asafoetida stinks, but it helps the cook

Asafoetida really stinks, so you won't have to.

The resin gets its name from the Persian word "aza" and the Latin word "foetida," referring to its strong sulfurous odor. In Indian herbal medicine Ayurveda, asafoetida is used to stimulate appetite and digestion and to help neutralize flatulence caused by beans and other legumes. Hence, the spice stinks but you won't.

According to nutritionist Cynthia Sass of New York, while there is very little published research in the West about asafetida, it has been used medicinally as a digestive aid, anti-inflammatory herb and as a bone builder.

But is that reason enough to use that spice? Is it even really a spice? What exactly makes people refer to it as devil's dung?

Asafoetida isn't a "spice" in the true sense of the word, says Ammini Ramachandran, food writer and author of "Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy." It is a hard, aromatic resinous gum collected from certain species of giant fennel. When the plants age, they develop carrot-shaped roots. A milky resin collected from the roots coagulates when exposed to air. It's dried in the sun and its color darkens.

Raw asafoetida stinks because of its sulfur content. Bt there is hope: When exposed to hot oil, asafetida develops a oniony-garlicky aroma. "Certain strict vegetarian diets of India forbid the use of onions and garlic, and asafoetida is used in their place for its distinct aroma," Ramachandran tells me.

Asafoetida, used extensively in Indian cooking, is a key component in many vegetable and meat curries, pickles and other savory snacks. Iranians use it to flavor meatballs; Afghan cooks use it to prepare dried meat.

Asafoetida is best used sparingly. It is sold in lump or powdered form. The lump is purer. To obtain maximum flavor, crush the lump and sauté it in a spoonful of hot oil.

Here's how Ramachandran uses the resin:

  • - A small pinch of asafetida, fried in a teaspoon of oil, can be added to any kind of cooked legumes. No more need for Beano.
  • - Season cooked green beans with asofoetida and roasted cumin powder.

SAVORY MINI CHEESECAKES WITH RED PEPPER AND TOMATILLO CHUTNEY

This recipe is from my book, "Modern Spice" (Simon and Schuster, 2009). Make the chutney in advance, giving it at least several hours to cool. The chutney takes about 40 minutes of active preparation and cooking time; the appetizer takes about 25 minutes to prepare.

  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • 30 mini phyllo shells
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 5 tablespoons sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons chutney (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Arrange the shells on the sheet.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cheese, egg, and sour cream until well combined.

Spoon 2 teaspoons of the mixture into each shell. Bake 15 minutes or until the filling is firm and set. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

Top each cheesecake with about 1/4 teaspoon of the chutney and serve. Makes 30 pieces.

RED PEPPER AND GREEN TOMATILLO CHUTNEY

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 5 or 6 fresh curry leaves
  • Pinch of asafoetida
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon onion seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 4 whole dried red chilies
  • 2 cups diced green tomatillos (10 to 12 medium tomatillos)
  • 1 cup seeded and diced red bell pepper (1 medium pepper)
  • 2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar or fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt

Heat oil in a medium skillet. When it begins to shimmer, add the curry leaves, asafoetida, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, onion and mustard seeds. As soon as the seeds begin to sizzle, about 1 minute, stir in the chilies, tomatillos, bell pepper, ginger and sugar. Mix well.

Pour in the water and vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer for about 35 minutes, until the tomatillos and bell pepper soften and the liquid becomes syrupy.

Stir in the salt. Mix well.

Remove skillet from heat. Discard the whole chilies, if you like. Transfer chutney to a container and cool. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Note: Fenugreek seeds add bitterness to a dish, so a little goes a long way. Also, they are not substitutes for fresh fenugreek or dried fenugreek leaves; the flavors and textures are miles apart.

Contact Monica Bhide at monica(at)monicabhide.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com

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