Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Asafoetida is one of the strangest and strongest of all spices. It comes from a perennial plant in the carrot family native to the mountains of Central Asia, from Turkey through Iran and Afghanistan to Kashmir; India and Iran are major producers. Ferula asafoetida, F. alliacea, F. foetida, and F. narthex look something like giant carrot plants, growing to 5 feet/1.5 m and developing massive carrot-like roots 6 in/15 cm in diameter, from which new sprouts arise every spring. The spice is obtained after the new foliage begins to turn yellow. The top of the root is exposed, the foliage pulled out, and the root surface periodically scraped to wound it and gather the protective sap that collects in the wound. The sap slowly hardens and develops a strong, sulfurous aroma reminiscent of human sweat and washed-rind cheese. Sometimes the resin is aged in fresh goat or sheep skin to augment its aroma, which is so strong that the resin is commonly ground and diluted for sale with gum arabic and flour. The aroma of asafoetida is due to a complex mixture of sulfur compounds, a dozen identical with volatiles in the onion family, and a number of less common di-, tri-, and tetrasulfides. Asafoetida can give the impression of onions, garlic, eggs, meat, and white truffles, and in India is a prominent ingredient in the cooking of the Jains, who avoid animal foods and also onion and garlic (because they contain a bud that would otherwise grow into a new plant).