Smells like nostalgia? The rich and pungent history of hing

Indians are, perhaps, the largest consumer of hing, though it has always been an import.

 |  7-minute read |   24-01-2017
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That hing came from Kabul was first revealed to me through the gentle tender story of the kabuliwala: the trader from Afghanistan whose heart ached for his homeland and the little daughter he had left behind. "Ai mere pyare vatan" sung in the Hindi version of the movie has continued to pull at heartstrings.

The resin drawn from the rhizome, a ginger like root, of the Ferula asafoetida, is rich in 2-butyl 1-propenyl disulphide, which is responsible for the identifying aroma. Among the other sulphides to be found is diallyl sulphide – which is also found in onion and garlic. Indians, for whom onion and garlic were taboo foods, have long relied on the rich scent of hing.

The idea that it is used more in vegetarian foods is an error. For centuries, Indians have washed their meats and fish with hingu-water – first documented by Someshwara III, emperor of the Western Chalukya. Someshwara, who untroubled by taboos, ate garlic but had his meat and fish cooked with hing.

While an onion-garlic-tomato base for gravies has now overtaken modern Indian cooking, the mantle of taboos continues to be in vogue on the days of festivals: when the gods come to share a meal and ancient dietary laws are remembered. The worshippers of Kali, continue to cook her "bhog" with meat flavoured with hing – popularly referred to as "vegetarian meat". Vegetarian because it is devoid of onion and garlic. Tomato, an import of the late 1800s, hasn’t found a place in the sacred foods either.

Kashmiri Hindus are famous for not having given into the charms of onion and garlic. Their meat roganjosh, yakhni and matach continue to rely hing for flavouring.

The vast array of Indian vegetarian cuisine that steers clear of onion and garlic relies upon hing for flavouring. Dishes that create a fusion of hing and onion are clearly avant-garde. And the pairing of garlic with hing continues to be frowned upon by traditional cooks who are guided by tradition and their noses. Modern chemical analysis explains that all it achieves is the doubling of diallyl sulphides – an exercise in futility.

As for the Indian cook’s nose …. What a nose!

Indians are, perhaps, the largest consumer of hing, though it has always been an import. One would never have connected the two, but here is the surprise: ferula asafoetida is a relative of the carrot and of moti-saunf or fennel!

The plant grows in the region that stretches from eastern Iran to western Afghanistan and in parts of Kashmir. It is difficult to cultivate and though all parts exude resin, it is the gum collected from the root of a mature plant that is used.

hing-body_012317083143.jpg Laconian black-figure cup found Vulci, Etruria. On tondo: the Cyrenian king Arkesilas watching over the bundling of wool (Boardman) or the preparation of silphion.

In India this is dried, powdered, mixed with gum Arabic and wheat flour to make "compound hing". Pay attention for many recipes fail to clarify whether the hing used is pure resin or compound resin.

The quantity to be used will depend on this. Indians use the compound version and use it sparingly, literally in milligrams — 100 milligrams for 600 grams of meat being prescribed for Kashmiri roganjosh.

This is in stark contrast to recipes that supposedly advise the use of a pea-sized ball of pure asafoetida resin. A pea, by the way, weighs 400 milligrams.

Also, those sensitive to gluten need to sit up and take note.

Beloved as it is India, asafoetida and its now-extinct relative silphium were sold in the markets of the cradle of civilisation. Cyrene in North Africa exported it by sea. Cultures that documented their ways of life have an upper hand over Indians. Thus, while our past stares blankly at us, we know that the plant was cultivated in the gardens of Babylonian King Marduk-apla-iddina II and included in a catalogue of medicinal plants in the library of King Ashurbanipal of Nineveh (near modern Mosul, Iraq).

Romans, with their taste for the exotic, included hing in their recipes. The trade route made its way through the Parthian Empire. Needless to say, a recipe for Parthian chicken found its way to Apicius’s cookbook.

"Open the chicken from the back and arrange it in four sections. Grind pepper, lovage and a moderate amount of caraway seed: Pour fish sauce over them and mix with wine. Place the chicken in a Cumaean clay pot and pour the blended mixture over the chicken. Dissolve fresh silphium in warm water and pour on the chicken as you cook it. Season with ground pepper."

Like Indians, Romans knew that with hing a little went a long way. They stored the resin along with chilgoza or pine nuts in large glass jars. A few nuts were then crushed and used to garnish the chosen dish. They imparted an admirable flavour.

Alternatively, it was dissolved in a broth made from pepper, parsley, dry mint, honey and vinegar. This basic broth was used for flavouring vegetables, meats and even lentils. Sometimes it could be spiced up further with the addition of caraway seeds, anise, malobathrum (wild cinnamon), and Indian spikenard (Jatamansi).

The Roman pumpkin recipe is worth a try using modern techniques: Microwave pieces of pumpkin until soft. Then mix in a basic white sauce or roué flavoured with a Roman masala mix of freshly ground pepper, jeera, and a touch of hing. Serve with a red wine reduction. No salt has been mentioned.

So is the Alexandrian recipe: Microwave pieces of pumpkin until soft. Arrange in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt, ground pepper, dhaniya-jeera powder, hing, and chopped mint leaves, a dash of vinegar and a drizzle of date wine. Top with chilgoza or pine nuts pounded with honey. Shake some red wine reduction with oil and pour generously over the top. Bake in a hot oven. Sprinkle freshly ground pepper over the top before serving.

Hing forms a part of the flavour base for most Roman meat dishes and is paired with nothing stronger than leeks. Garlic and asafoetida is never used in the same recipe. Wonderful recipes exist for pork shoulder, hare and goose, not to mention exotic meats such as flamingo, parrot, crane (do not try these recipes) and dormice (a useful protein source we must once again look into).

The recipe for masoor dal is worth sharing: Pressure cook the dal until soft. Add leeks and dhaniya patta and cook till thick. Pound dhaniya seeds, hing and mint with vinegar and honey. Add to the dal puree and cook. Add a spoonful of white sauce to thicken. Top with a swirl of oil and freshly ground pepper. Once again there is no mention of salt.

But Romans and Greeks had not discovered the secret that Indians had. Hing tastes best when it is fried in hot oil for about 10 seconds and no more.

Despite its presence in Roman and Greek recipes, hing did not make its way into European cuisines. In fact, asafoetida's strong smell earned it the German name Teufelsdreck – devil's dung.

The plant’s leaves (al-anjudhan) seem to have been most popular in Abbasid cuisine and the 10th Century encyclopedic Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes) documents its use in kebabs, a recipe for dried salt fish and in a vinegar–caraway–asafoetida-leaf sauce.

Like its many uses in Ayurveda, the Greek herbalist Pedanius Dioscorides, in his authoritative work on botanical medicine, De Materia Medica, recommends it as a panacea for all ills. Both he and Pliny agreed that it could bring on menstruation. Ibn Sina, the great physician of the Abbasids, recommended it for treating indigestion.

By the mid-13th century, the empire of the Abbasids gave way to the Mongols. Pax Mongolica encouraged trade and hing continued to be imported by apothecaries of Venice. It was the Italians who coined the word asafoetida. In Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (1563), Garcia de Orta, physician to the Portuguese governor of Goa for 30 years, documented its use in medicine and its popularity as a flavouring agent, while admitting that it was a cultivated taste – one he could never get used to.

On a lighter note, speculation may have arisen as to the source of the scent of hing hanging in the misty morning air on the banks of the Yamuna outside Delhi’s Red Fort. Could it have wafted across from the shops of the famous kachori sellers in Chandni Chowk? Or were the court singers, at their morning riyaz, responsible? It is to be believed that the singers of Shah Jahan’s court owed their mellifluous tones to a morning dose of a spoonful of hing scented butter.

Also read: A short history of how Indians came to eat bhindi


Manoshi Bhattacharya Manoshi Bhattacharya @chittagong1930

Physician and author now working with nutrition in Indian diets.

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