When I first started looking into Indian cooking techniques and recipes, I kept coming across this elusive ingredient known by many different names: asafoetida, asafetida, and most commonly known as hing. I looked up a picture of the plant and realized that my grandmother used it to make homemade pickles! Hing is used in many recipes that I wanted to try, so I decided to order some online from My Spice Sage (they have the most elusive ingredients, so if you can’t locally source something, check this site first). It an ingredient that has no substitution, so its worth the hunt if you enjoy authentic Indian cuisine.
The most intimidating thing I discovered about working with hing is its strong, pungent smell. Some would describe it as foot odor, but I don’t know if I’d go that far. It definitely is an evasive smell, so its best to keep hing in an air tight container or double bag, or your spice cabinet may take on its odor. This smell goes away when hing is added to cooking oil, and develops a similar flavor profile similar to a combination of leeks, onions, and garlic. It is a great flavor substitute if you are sensitive to any of those particular ingredients.
I have been using it lately with a cooking technique known as a chaunk. A chaunk, also known as a tarka or tadka, is a common technique used to impart flavor from whole spices. I heat about 2 TB of vegetable oil (a replacement for ghee, which is clarified butter) and heat on medium heat. I usually add cumin seeds to my chaunk, so I add one seed into the pan to see if the oil is hot enough. If it pops and sizzles, the oil is ready for the cumin seeds. I add hing towards the end of the cooking of my chaunk, which never takes more than 30 seconds or the spices will start to burn. You then pour the chaunk into your gravy or dal (lentils), you can even add it to basmati rice! It imparts such a depth of flavor that is essential to Indian cooking.
Indian food is all about spice blends and balancing strong flavors so that not one element overpowers another, which is not as easy as it seems. Enter in the mysterious ingredient that melds flavors and aids in digestion, hing. If you have trouble digesting legumes, try adding a pinch of hing to your recipe! It is my secret ingredient in making authentic, restaurant quality Indian food at home. I also don’t mind the smell of raw asafoetida anymore, although I still don’t risk leaving it out too long uncovered.