You’ll find hing or asafatida in about 90% of Indian recipes. It’s that pale looking spice that smells a bit like eggs and tastes rather bitter. But don’t be put off by hing’s foul odour - most Indians certainly aren't. Hing is the spice responsible for giving Indian food its heady and authentic flavour.
We’d all be forgiven for thinking that hing is inherently Indian. After all, India accounts for 40% of the world's hing consumption. That’s a whole lotta hing. In actual fact, India spends over $100 million every year on raw imports of the funky smelling spice. It’s high in value and high in demand.
Imports of hing, sometimes known as ‘devil’s dung’, come from the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The spice is extracted from the resin gum found in the sap of the plant named ‘Ferula Asafoetida’. Considering how often the spice is used in Indian cooking, you’d think it makes sense for Indian farmers to cultivate their own hing, on their own land. It would probably save a fair bit of dosh too. Sadly, India’s tropical climate makes hing cultivation very tricky. Its flowering plant loves mild weather, dry soil and temperatures under 35degrees. Scientists have reported, after many failed harvests in India, that the plant adopts a bit of an attitude under harsh conditions and takes itself to sleep. Fair enough, I suppose.
Why is hing so popular in India?
Alternative to Onions and Garlic:
When cooked in hot oil or ghee to temper a dish, hing becomes extremely fragrant and makes the perfect alternative to onions and garlic. Especially if you’re making a dal. It’s the only ingredient that satisfies the desire for comforting earthy, umami flavours. Many people choose to cut onion and garlic out of their diet due to health related reasons (it’s FODMAP friendly!) or religious restrictions. Many Hindus and Jains avoid eating root vegetables such as potatoes, onions,leeks and garlic, because they believe tiny life forms are injured when the plant is pulled up and because the bulb is seen as a living being, as it is able to sprout.
How do you cook with hing?
First of all, less is more. You only need about ½ - 1tsp when cooking.
Add it to hot oil or clarified butter along with spices like turmeric, ground cumin and ground coriander. It’s the perfect base spice for making lentil curries like dals.
It’s particularly good to add a dash of hing to vegetable curries that have a track record for encouraging flatulence, such as cauliflower, beans, lentils and peas.