There is a spice, a very strange and uncommon spice that is unfamiliar to most western palates, but not to central Asian folks. In fact this particular spice has been around for ages, and is widely used in Indian cuisine. I am referring to asafoetida, also known as Hing, which is a potent resin with a powerful aroma, something akin to musty, earthy smells. Or in some cases it has been deemed to have an odor of sweat. But don't let the odor fool you, once a tiny pinch of the resin is sauteed in hot oil or ghee (clarified butter) the spice dissolves and emits a smell reminiscent of onions and garlic. The infused oil is used to add depth and complexity to a variety of savory dishes such as rice, vegetables and legumes ordal. It can also be mixed with salt and eaten with raw salads. For those vegetarians who shun garlic and onion, asafoetida is a great replacement.
Asafoetida is native to central Asia and is related to carrots. After the root is cleaned of leaves it is then scraped until the root begins to ooze a substance called sap. The sap slowly congeals into a mass of dark resin. The resin is crushed and mixed with flour and gum Arabic or acacia gum and is then sold to the public. Afghanistan happens to be the worlds largest exporter of asafoetida.
In Indian cuisine, the vegetarians who consume legumes (beans or lentils) for protein rely on asafoetida not only as a flavoring enhancement but also as a digestive aid, as most legumes can be hard to digest. The dual purpose of asafoetida plays an important role in Indian vegetarian cooking even though it is used as a replacement for onions and garlic in certain dishes; however, there is no substitute for asafoetida.
Just be sure to store asafoetida in an air-tight container as the strong potency of its aroma can affect other spices stored nearby.
Because we prepare quite a few vegetarian dishes at home, we have been using asafoetida in some of our recipes. The following is an easy and tasty recipe if you want to explore other possibilities in flavoring your food with an excellent spice:
Indian Vindaloo Vegetables - click link