When Alexander's mercenaries returned from India in the 4th century B.C., they brought with them an intensely pungent spice they'd found in Central Asia. It was much like the more delicate and costly silphium of Cyrene, and would quickly become a valuable trade item in its own right. Its use in Europe faded by the 16th century, but asafoetida remains widely used in Indian cuisine.
Asafoetida is a plant in the fennel family, native to a swath of Central Asia reaching from Iran in the west to India in the east. It is a large plant, growing to heights as great as 10 feet in some areas. Mature plants develop a large, thick taproot, which produces a thick, gummy sap when it is cut. The sap hardens when it is exposed to the air, becoming hard enough that it is traditionally pounded to dust, rather than grated, for use in food. It is closely related to the extinct silphium, a spice much loved by the Romans.
Asafoetida Flavor and Aroma
Asafoetida's aroma is its most distinctive characteristic. The English name for it, in fact, shares a root with the word fetid, which means stinking. All parts of the plant share a rotten, sulphury odour that is strongly repellent, nowhere more so than in the spice itself. One alternate name for it in English is "devil's dung," which adequately conveys its character. Yet when a small pinch of the spice is fried in oil or butter, it mellows dramatically and produces a mild but pleasant flavour of garlic and onions or leeks.
Many exotic spices are difficult to find substitutions for, but asafoetida is not one of them. Its gentle flavour of onions and garlic is easily replaced by using onions and garlic, either fresh or in another form. Dry onion and garlic powder are easily added to almost any recipe, as are onion or garlic juice or garlic paste. Remember when using them that asafoetida's flavour is mild, and substitutes should be used in moderation.
If you are successful in locating a source of asafoetida for later use, it is absolutely imperative to store it carefully. The strong odour is very penetrating, and will quickly overwhelm the flavours of anything else in the vicinity if it is inadequately packaged. The powder or, if you find it, block of asafeotida will usually come in airtight packaging. Enclose this packaging in plastic film wrap or a zipper-seal bag, then place it inside a mason jar and screw the lid tightly closed.