Back in 1969, a friend returned from India with a lump of this amazing-smelling stuff. So I asked him what it was for, and he told me to rub it in my hair. Foolishly, I did, and I carried its odor with me for a month.
It was, I eventually found out, asafetida (“ass-uh-feh-TEE-dah”)—resin made from the sap of Ferula foetida, a plant that grows in India, Afghanistan, and Iran. The name derives from the Persian asa, “gum”, and the Latin foetida, “stinking”. (The German word for it, Teufelsdreck, translates, even more unappetizingly, as “devil’s dung”.) In medieval times, asafetida was reputed to ward off witches. The ancient Romans found it to be the only acceptable substitute for silphium, an herb that disappeared (due to overcropping) during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 37-68). It is a powerful seasoning—a mere pinch will impart a trufflelike flavor to any unsuspecting dish—but with cooking, it magically loses its sulfurous scent. Today, the ingredient is used mostly in India, where it is called hing. Jains and Hindu Brahmins use it in place of onions, which are prohibited in their cooking because of their strong smell.
Years after my hair incident, I finally tasted asafetida—and was instantly addicted. It is sold in lumps, which can be stored for years and broken as needed, and in powder form, which is not as potent because it is often mixed with rice flour. Both are worth looking for in Indian markets. The aroma, which I no longer find distressing, in fact makes me salivate in anticipation of one of the many dals it is used in, or of aloo hing ki sath, an earthy potato dish. My wife has even successfully incorporated it into her green tomato chutney.