Food of the Gods or Devil’s Dung?: The Enigmatic Asafoetida

Asafoetida is a touchy herb. Add too much and it ruins a meal; add too little and it fails to impart its unique flavor. Indeed, its many seemingly contradictory names attests to its enigmatic nature. Known variously as devil’s dung, food of the gods, stinking gum and giant fennel, the plant smells pungent when raw; but when cooked it delivers a pleasant flavor, reminiscent of leeks.

The 1919 book Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran reports that asafoetida is “a vegetable product consisting of resin, gum and essential oil in varying proportions, and that it is “generally used in India as a condiment, being especially eaten with pulses and rice.” The leaves are also consumed, and “the white under part of the stem” is considered delicacy, particularly when it is roasted and flavored with salt and butter.

Asafoetida is not just used to flavor pulses; it possesses medicinal powers as well. The plant supposedly “renders food easily digestible, strengthens the stomach, and alleviates pain of the joints in hands and feet.” When applied externally it dispels swellings, especially if the milky juice of the plant is employed. And when “macerated in vinegar” the root produces an elixir that “strengthens and purifies the stomach, promotes digestion, and acts as an appetizer.”

Should you wish to savor the unique flavor of asafoetida, try this recipe for Vedic cabbage rolls from the cookbook Vedische Kochkunst (Vedic Cooking). The sublime savor of this dish is a taste of gustatorial Nirvana!

Vedic Cabbage Rolls (Bandgobhi kofta)

2 tablespoons ghee (or butter)
1 stick of cinnamon, 5 cm long
5 cloves
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
1 kg tomatoes, blanched, skinned and crushed (or use crushed, canned tomatoes)
4 tablespoons raisins
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
100 grams chickpea flour
2 pinches ground pepper
1 small head white cabbage
2 tablespoons ghee (or butter)
50 grams almonds of cashews, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, chopped
1 or 2 dried chilies, crushed
350 grams paneer, chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, or 1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon paprika

Heat the ghee in a small pot and roast the cinnamon, cloves, cumin and the asafoetida for 30 to 45 seconds. Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes, until the sauce becomes thick. Add the raisins, lemon juice, turmeric and 2 teaspoons salt. Take out the cinnamon stick and the cloves and remove from the heat.

Mix the chickpea flour in a bowl with a pinch salt and pepper. Add enough water to make a thick, pancake-like batter. Cover with a cloth and set aside.

Wash the cabbage and remove and discard the outer leaves. Boil some water with a pinch of salt and put in the cabbage head. After five minutes take out the cabbage and rinse under cold water. Carefully peel off 6 to 8 cabbage leaves and set aside. (Use the rest of the cabbage in another recipe.) Carefully cut the thick stalk from the middle of each leaf, being careful not to damage too much of the leaf. Dry the leaves and set aside.

Heat ghee in a pan and add the chopped nuts, chopped ginger, and the chilies. Roast until light brown. Then add the chopped paneer, the chopped cilantro, the paprika. Salt to taste. Reduce heat and mix the ingredients until well mixed. Then lay out the cabbage leaves and place a tablespoon of the filling in the middle of each leaf. Form each filled leaf into a secure package. Then dip each package in the chickpea batter and lightly fry in some more ghee until they are golden brown. Serve with the tomato sauce.

For an easier dish, you can forgo frying the filled cabbage leaves. In this case, do not make the chickpea batter. Instead place the filled cabbage leaves in a baking pan and pour the tomato sauce over them. Bake at 350 degrees F. for twenty minutes.

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