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Young Reader's World

Devil's Dung: The World's Smelliest Spice
Look delicious? Maybe not, but looks can be deceiving. It's raw asafoetida, on sale in a shop in Cairo, Egypt. Its most unique characteristic is its terrible smell.
The spice called asafoetida (ah-sa-FEH-ti-da) and Cinderella have something in common. Like the fairy-tale character, the seasoning's best qualities aren't immediately evident. In fact, its smell is likely to drive you away—until you release its hidden charms in the kitchen.

I first heard the word asafoetida in the seventh grade, when my English teacher used it as a “gotcha” word on spelling quizzes. With its funny oe spelling, a holdover from Latin, it always stumped us in class. My teacher explained that asafoetida was an unusual seasoning, but left it at that. Only many years later, when I was living in Egypt, did I come to know the spice firsthand and discover that its smell is its most remarkable trait.

In Egypt, I became interested in the cuisine of ancient Greece and Rome. I found that more than a few surviving recipes called for a gum resin from a plant called silphium. Silphium grew only in eastern Libya and was popular in Greece and Rome until the first century CE, when it was believed to have become extinct. Roman cooks then turned to asafoetida as a substitute.

To find the spice in Cairo, I headed to the well-known Harraz Herb Shop near bustling Bab al-Khalq square. The shop resembled a medieval apothecary, or pharmacy, with row upon row of seeds, powders and baskets of dried plants and shelves filled with bottles of oils. I bought a fist-sized lump of brown-gray resin. It was slightly sticky and dense as a block of wood. Its most unique characteristic was a terrible smell—like a blend of manure and overcooked cabbage, with the pungency of a summer dumpster. The stench leached into everything nearby, too, which meant I had to double-wrap it and seal it in a plastic tub if I wanted to keep it in my kitchen!

If you're traveling in India, check for asafoetida in the local markets. Today, it is usually ground into a powder, sold in containers and used to add flavor to food, or for medicinal purposes.

If you're traveling in India, check for asafoetida in the local markets. Today, it is usually ground into a powder, sold in containers and used to add flavor to food, or for medicinal purposes.

Later, I unwrapped it, scraped off a pea-sized piece of resin and dropped it into olive oil to sauté. The transformation was astonishing: The asafoetida disintegrated in the hot oil and gave off a rich, savory scent that smelled like sautéed onions. It also had a wonderful taste and I quickly learned why something that had seemed so repulsive was so popular. You may be surprised to know that this smelly spice is still in demand in a number of countries today. One is India, where it is used in everything from pickled dishes, chutneys and curries to vegetarian dishes and lentils. In the West, asafoetida remains virtually unused, with one exception: It’s an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, which is based on a recipe from a British officer who had served in India when it was part of the British Empire.

The earliest mention of asafoetida in the historical record dates from the eighth century BCE, when the plant was listed in an inventory of the gardens of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. From that beginning, the story of asafoetida reaches from ancient India and Persia to Rome, the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, medieval Europe, India’s Mughal Empire and modern Afghanistan and Iran.

The word asafoetida is itself a linguistic meeting of East and West: aza means “resin” or “mastic” in Persian and foetida means “stinking” in Latin. In Afghanistan (where it grows widely today) and in India (its biggest consumer), its name is far simpler: hing, which comes from the Sanskrit han, meaning “kill”–likely another reference to its deadly uncooked smell.

Asafoetida is collected from the root of a plant related to the carrot and fennel. It has never been successfully cultivated, and grows only from eastern Iran to western Afghanistan and in parts of Kashmir. Generally, a plant must be at least four years old before it will produce, and is tapped in the spring. An incision is made in the top of the root and for up to three months it oozes as much as a kilogram (35 ounces) of milky resin. This hardens on exposure to air and gradually turns brown.

Although there are no reliable national statistics, it’s estimated that Iran and Afghanistan together annually produce 500 to 600 tons of asafoetida, most exported to India. There, the dried resin is ground into a powder and mixed with gum arabic and flour to keep it from lumping and to lessen its intensity. This is sold in India, North America and Europe, where jars cost a few dollars.

Next time you have an upset stomach, perhaps you should try asafoetida! In the early 11th century, the great physician Ibn Sina recommended it for treating indigestion. Even earlier, in the first century, the Greek herbalist Dioscorides had recommended it as a cure for baldness, toothache, lung diseases, bronchitis and even scorpion bites!

The joy of cooking with asafoetida. First, pound it in a pestle until it somewhat resembles brown sugar. Then sprinkle it lightly into warm water, or put it in hot oil in a frying pan. The heat breaks down the disulfides that won it the name

The joy of cooking with asafoetida. First, pound it in a pestle until it somewhat resembles brown sugar. Then sprinkle it lightly into warm water, or put it in hot oil in a frying pan. The heat breaks down the disulfides that won it the name "devil's dung," and the results have made it popular for more than two thousand years.

The most likely trade route for asafoetida in Roman times ran from Herat in today’s northwestern Afghanistan to Mashhad in northeastern Iran. It then joined the international trade routes known as the Silk Road and followed the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, across the Iranian plateau to Ctesiphon, near Baghdad, and then north along the Euphrates to Dura Europos in Syria’s eastern desert. From there, caravans traveled to the Mediterranean either by a northerly route to the port city of Antioch, or a southerly route, via Palmyra and Damascus, to Tyre.

When Islam arrived in the seventh century, the region where asafoetida grew came to be part of the Abbasid Empire’s Persian territories. The Abbasid capital, Baghdad, developed a cosmopolitan court culture, and an appreciation of fine cooking there led to many Arabic cookbooks. The best known today is the 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). Covering everything from condiments to stews and yogurt-based dishes and sweets, the recipes use the resin, the root and the leaves of the asafoetida plant.

By the mid-13th century, the Mongols had toppled the Abbasids. Their rule, known as the pax Mongolica (“Mongolian peace”), guaranteed the relative safety of traders along the Silk Road. While there is little evidence that medieval Europeans inherited the Roman use of asafoetida in cooking, they did use the spice for medicinal purposes. It was probably at around this time that the word asafoetida was coined.

A few centuries later, the rise of the Mughal Empire in India opened another trade route to another market and asafoetida became popular in India. In fact, court singers reportedly ate it to improve their voices.

Garcia da Orta, a physician working in India, wrote in his book Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India, published in 1563: “You must know that the thing most used throughout India, and in all parts of it, is that Assafetida, as well for medicine as in cookery.... These [people] flavor the vegetables they eat with it, first rubbing the pan with it, and then using it as seasoning with everything they eat.”

Da Orta was honest enough to admit that asafoetida had “the nastiest smell in the world for me,” but he was also wise enough to observe, “The truth is that there is a good deal of habit in the matter of smells.”

As for me, I’m still not used to the odor of the raw resin, although the promise of its almost buttery scent when cooked keeps me coming back to it. So I still keep it double-wrapped, inside a plastic tub, on the shelf.

Note: Sanskrit is the ancient and sacred language of the Hindus in India.

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Chip Rossetti Chip Rossetti ([email protected]) was a senior editor for the American University in Cairo Press and is now a doctoral student in Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Michael Nelson Michael Nelson ([email protected]) is the Middle East regional photo manager for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) in Cairo.



This lesson correlates to the following national standards for world history and language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/: