May 13, 2013

Asafoetida, Earth and Space

It's Sunday night and I'm eating popcorn in bed in my underwear.

I just got home from having drinks with a friend at one of my favorite bar/restaurants here in Somerville called Highland Kitchen, where you can sit in the window and, now that's it's still light out, watch the airplanes rise into the air out of Logan. There goes Aer Lingus and Swiss Air and United. I've always had a fascination with airplanes (dad would say it's in my blood), and to this day I still get teary during take-off when the plane breaks through the clouds and I look out into the ethereal topography of the sky contrasted with the earth below and realize that for a few hours I can leave everything behind.

It felt a little like that tonight as I sat in the window enjoying my cocktail and watching the planes cross the sky at an angle, upwards, into the pink clouds and the darkening blue sky. Maybe it's just that it's spring, and the air is soft and full of the fragrance of apple blossoms. Even if some things still feel sharp and jagged, at least there's this delicious cocktail and the evening sky and there are airplanes and pink clouds and trees in bloom. Space, sky, trees, roots, earth.

It's one of the reasons I love spices so much, because they can create this same sensation—this feeling of being both grounded and transported simultaneously. Grounded because spices are a piece of the environment: a seed, root, leaf, or other plant part, and transported because they are (more often than not) from far away, and can teach us or just expose us to another land, another culture. Spices don't literally take us anywhere, the way a plane does by virtue of powerful jet engines run on fossil fuels, yet they have the power to affect our senses in the same way that airplanes do. They can change our perspective, they can make us leave everything else behind, they can plunge us into a moment of reverie or fascination. When my mother and I made dinner the other night together, I insisted we use my new found spice called 'Asafoetida.' I didn't really know what to do with it, knowing only that it smelled like a cross between garlic, onion and bad body odor, but decided it'd be fun to flavor a chutney for our grilled salmon. Mom was willing to let me experiment, because she loves me, and doesn't judge if I tell her I want to hijack her dinner with a crazy armpit spice or even if I tell her I'm eating popcorn in bed (because she does, too.)

Asafoetida is a profoundly strange spice, but I didn't find it as disgusting as many people have said. It does smell like onions and armpits. But so does Durian fruit, and having endured that, and even enjoyed the taste (which is sweet and custardy, once you get past the rotten onion smell) I am ready for anything. Asafoetida has a lot of fascinating stories to tell, including being a remedy for influenza and a replacement for onions in certain Hindu cultures that don't consume them. Technically, this spice comes from the rhizome of a giant fennel plant called Ferula assa-foetida (yes, it's where the word 'fetid' comes from!) which is native to Afghanistan and is usually ground up and mixed with a little turmeric and rice flour to tame it and keep it from clumping. It is pungent. So pungent in fact that you can taste it even before it's entered your mouth, since it has such aromatic properties. But it also has anti-flatulence properties, so it's often used in bean dishes that are difficult to digest.

In my mango chutney I found it acted as a harmonizing agent between the sweet/sour aspect of the mango and the savory aspect of the peppers. It balanced out the spicy ginger and the tangy shallots. It brought it all together. While I doubted whether the stinky nature of the spice would dissipate after cooking, my experiment with asafoetida was, in fact, a success. It made me feel more confident about cooking outside of my comfort zone, which is to say, anything other than risotto, pasta or pizza. It grounded me in the essence of it's earthliness—its humble off-putting smell—and transported me to a realm of Indian cooking that was truly exciting and delicious. Mom liked it too.

Mango Chutney

2 ripe mangoes, cut into small cubes
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 TB grated ginger
1/8 tsp asafoetida
fresh spring onions

In a small frying pan, turn on heat to medium and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once pan is hot, add your shallots and peppers. Once they begin to soften, add the ginger and asafoetida and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the shallots begin to turn golden. Turn heat to low and add the mango chunks and a few pinches of salt, paprika and cumin and continue to cook, letting the mango break down and become soft (about 12 minutes.) Add freshly sliced spring onions and serve alongside fish, beans or vegetables. 


  1. Guess what's ripening in my fruit bowl. A mango. Must be kismet. Must be a sign. Will be making stink-chutney in a day or two!

    Thanks for the post!


  2. I have long been fascinated by this spice, which I use in Indian bean dishes. Thanks for posting!