Asafoetida is a gum from a variety of giant fennel, which naturally has a strong and pungent smell, rather like rotting garlic (as in foetid). It's a very useful spice for those who can't or won't eat onion or garlic, as it adds a similar depth and savouriness to food. Indeed, Jain and Brahmin Indians, who are prohibited from eating garlic and onions, use it a lot in their cooking.
Easily available online, from bigger supermarkets and from Indian spice stockists, where it is known as hing.
Choose the best
Asafoetida comes in two main forms.
The brown powder is the full-strength dried gum that's been ground; it's extremely pungent and must be used in very, very small amounts.
It's easier to use it as a yellow powder, when it's been diluted with flour or rice flour and turmeric, but it must still be used scantly. Different producers temper it differently, so check the packaging for directions – see below for guidance.
The real thing is red-brown lumps of different sizes but you are unlikely to encounter it.
It's best to keep asafoetida sealed in an airtight container to prevent the smell spreading through your home.
Asafoetida’s degree of pungency is directly proportionate to its freshness, as its volatile oil escapes easily and the essence then fades. Take great care storing it and replace often if you use it regularly.
Generally, the yellow, diluted asafoetida powder is used to the proportion of a pinch or two, to 250g of the main ingredient. The undiluted powder is used in smaller amounts. You'll quickly discover if you like more or less, and there's no harm done if you use too much – longer cooking mellows it.
Asafoetida works best when fried for 5 to 10 seconds in hot oil until its pungency is dramatically obvious – make sure you have the extractor on or a window open – then add other ingredients to stop it burning.
Even small amounts of asafoetida give a comforting onion-garlic flavour, which is especially good in vegetarian dishes, curries and stews – almost anywhere you would use onion and/or garlic.
Tiny amounts give a gentle lift to fish, egg or cheese dishes where onion would be too coarse or bulky. That includes in salads and salad dressings, too.
Asafoetida is also a natural defeater of intestinal wind, and that alone recommends it for inclusion in any and everything that includes lentils or beans.
Pioneering BBC-TV Chef Glynn Christian is author of REAL FLAVOURS - the Handbook of Gourmet and Deli Ingredients, voted 'World's Best Food Guide'.