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Ferula is a perennial, herbaceous plant native to the eastern Mediterranean region. Also known as common giant fennel, ferula has a long and ancient history as a medicinal plant and in mythology. Its tall, hollow stem was said to have been used by Prometheus to carry stolen fire from the sun to the earth. In fact, the name "ferula" means carrier or vehicle. Today, ferula is used in Indian and Asian cooking, as well as for its soothing medicinal properties. Due to its bitter taste and extremely strong odor, a little goes a long way regardless of the reason for using it.
Giant fennel, which should not be confused with the edible fennel bulb, can grow to be up to 7 feet (about 2 meters) tall. Its yellow flowers grow in umbels, which are clusters with stems radiating out from a central point. Although people native to the area eat the cabbage-like heads, others are repulsed by its lingering odor—especially in raw form—and bitter aftertaste. Many find it to be stronger than either onion or garlic. It is this odor that gives ferula the nicknames “stinking gum” and “devil’s dung.” In the Mediterranean region, ferula is used mostly in vegetable dishes in very small amounts. Generally, no more than one-half teaspoon (2.5 ml) is added to a dish.
In the early 1900s, ferula was the source of the drug and spice Asafetida, which was obtained from the roots and stems of the plant. It was used to calm the nerves, soothe upset stomachs and abdominal distress, and ease mental depression. It was sometimes believed to help bronchial coughs as it was exhaled through the lungs. Once again, using only a small amount was key since larger amounts tended to cause headaches and dizziness.
The medicinal use of the ferula spice has come into favor again, and many now claim that it has benefits in soothing the symptoms of ailments ranging from asthma to stomach upset to flu. Side effects are possible and range from skin rash to stomach pain and headaches. It is always a good idea to consult with a doctor before trying any herbal medications or remedies.
Asafetida is available in blocks, powder, or pieces. Powder is generally considered the easiest to use. It has also found increased favor in cooking, particularly with those who believe onion and garlic are distressing to the body and substitute ferula instead.