Asafoetida is a plant from the Apiaceae family, which includes carrots, parsley, dill, celery, caraway, fennel, and lovage. Most similar in appearance to fennel, this herb has a smell that's often compared to rotting feet, which causes many cooks to feel nervous about using it. In fact, some countries refer to it as Devil's Dung because of the foul smell.
Native to the Middle East, asafoetida is a perennial plant that grows about 6 feet (1.83 m) high and bears bright yellow clusters of flowers. The hollow stem and roots of the plant house a milky substance that is rich in organic sulfur. This substance is sometimes dried and blended with rice flour to create a flour that is used in cooking. This type of flour has grown in popularity in the United States and has been used worldwide for years. In India, for example, asafoetida is used in all lentil dishes, primarily because the herb is known to prevent and alleviate smelly flatulence.
Though it smells offensive, asafoetida tastes much like a combination of strong onions with a touch of earthy truffles. The rich, distinctive taste is popular with many chefs because it can be used in a variety of applications, including in soups and stews. Many cooks enjoy adding a pinch of this powder while stir-frying vegetables and meats.
As a strong tasting herb, a small amount of it goes a long way. Therefore, large quantities are not needed for most recipes.
Asafoetida has been used as a medicinal herb for many decades, with some people choosing to make a tea from it in order to drink it plain. Despite its pungent aroma, it is known to alleviate stomach ailments, cold symptoms, anxiety issues, chronic fatigue, yeast infections, and painful gas and flatulence. It's crucial for anyone who is pregnant, hoping to become pregnant, or breastfeeding to avoid this herb, as it can work as a contraceptive, cause miscarriages, and cause blood disorders in children.
The plant cannot be eaten raw, and the raw root can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting. In the United States, powder is the only form available for purchase.