Arabic: Haltita, Hiltit;
Other English: Asafoetida, Giant Fennel, Devil’s Dung, Stinking Gum, Food of the Gods Ferula assa-foetida or F. asafoetida; Umbelliferae/Apiaceae (Parsley Family)
When the doorbell rang, Khalid knew that his grandmother had arrived with her infamous family remedy: the foul-smelling gum resin of the asafetida plant. His mind raced to find an excuse, any excuse, to avoid taking it. He felt uncertain that the effort required to swallow the bitter substance was worth the cure. Yet he knew his grandmother would be firm. Her words still echoed to him from times of past sickness: “You know, Khalid, asafetida has been used for ages as an effective medicine in the Arab world. It works mainly to improve the digestive system, but it’s also used as a pain-reliever, a cough medicine and a blood thinner. We’ll use it to treat your upset stomach.” Khalid had no choice but to agree—and he soon felt better. In Saudi Arabia today, families still turn to asafetida as a “last-resort” treatment for coughs, colds, fevers and stomach discomfort. It is not the most popular home remedy; parents must coach their children to hold their nose and swallow quickly in order to tolerate the strong smell and bitter taste.
How to use: 1) Melt in hot water and drink; 2) Grind or crush the lump resin into powder or melt it in liquid and use sparingly as a cooking spice.
In the kitchen: Despite its sulfurous smell, asafetida, when cooked, imparts a surprisingly pleasant flavor to many foods. In Indian cuisine, it is a substi- tute for onion or garlic. Use in small amounts. The powdered form is milder than the resin, because it is normally blended with rice flour. The resin should be fried in hot oil before using. A pea-sized quantity is enough to flavor a large pot of lentils or vegetables. Store asafetida in an air-tight container.
Remedies across Arabia: Asafetida is available in Middle Eastern herb shops and can be purchased in lump resin or powdered form.
Did you know?
- Alexander the Great is credited with carrying asafetida west in the fourth century BC, following his expeditions into the Persian Empire (modern Afghanistan).
- The famous ancient Roman gourmet Apicius (first century) used asafetida in over half of his recipes.
- The British explorer Charles Doughty, who traveled throughout Arabia in the mid-19th century, called asafetida “a drug which the Arabs have in sovereign estimation.”
- Asafetida is native to Iran and western Afghanistan.
- Modern herbalists regard asafetida as a sedative, antispasmodic and circulatory agent. It is also known to relieve intestinal and stomach upsets.
- Asafetida is much used in the Ayurvedic tradition and is also popular in Indian vegetarian cooking.
- Al-Kindi, an Islamic scholar of the ninth century, used asafetida to counter phlegm and treat sore throat, tooth pain, rheumatism and nervous conditions, and also as an aphrodisiac.
- Asafetida gets its name from the Persian aza, for mastic or resin, and the Latin foetidus, for stinking.