A pilot project to grow Ferula asafoetida in India may help the country’s foodies taste the spice finally cultivated in its spiritual home
There was a frisson of excitement amongst food trend watchers recently when scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) — Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT) based in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, announced that they had planted 800 saplings of Ferula asafoetida in the cold desert region of Lahaul and Spiti.
An integral part of Indian cuisine and natural medicine, asafoetida is extracted from the fleshy roots of the perennial ferula (part of the celery family) as an oleo-gum resin.
Not many people know that the plant behind the spice, which gives a zing to Indian vegetarian dishes, besides being a go-to home remedy for digestion problems, had never been grown in India, until the October 15 effort announced by CSIR-IHBT.
Despite its popularity, its pungent smell has earned asafoetida less than flattering monikers such as ‘devil’s dung’ or ‘food of the devils’ in the West. India, though, has more prosaic names, such as hing in Hindi and perungayam in Tamil. And given its ubiquity as a standalone element or a component of spice mixtures, it is among the most valuable commodities being traded in the country today.
Even though it is used extensively in vegetarian cooking (especially by communities that do not consume onion and garlic due to religious reasons), asafoetida turns up in surprising places, such as Worcestershire sauce and even some fine perfumes.
The IHBT plantation drive, held under the aegis of the State Department of Agriculture, Himachal Pradesh, hopes to make India reduce its reliance on imported raw stock.
Cold desert areas of India such as Lahaul and Spiti, Ladakh, parts of Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh are suitable for cultivation of ferula. In inclement weather conditions, it is known to go dormant.
“The country imports about 1,540 tonnes of raw asafoetida annually from Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan and spends approximately ₹942 crore per year on it. It is important for India to become self-sufficient in hing production,” says Sanjay Kumar, Director, CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, in an email interview.
Dr Kumar, who planted the first ferula seedling on October 15 in a field in Kwaring village of Lahaul valley, led a team comprising fellow scientists Ashok Kumar, Ramesh and Sanatsujat Singh in the trial project.
Seeds imported from Iran in 2018 were used in the CSIR-IHBT pilot project. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU
The Institute raised the plants at the Centre for High Altitude Biology (CeHAB — a research centre of CSIR-IHBT) in Ribling, Lahaul and Spiti. Seeds officially imported from Iran in 2018 were used for the project, under the supervision of National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR).
It will take approximately five years for the project to bear fruit (or rather, resin).
Food and wellness
For the majority of us though, the spice remains an essential part of the kitchen cabinet, irrespective of its country of origin. Asafoetida is bitter in taste and hot in effect, and can also be used to enhance flavours in roasted meat dishes.
For Ajit Bangera, senior executive chef, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, the South Indian sambar is a favourite dish that makes best use of hing. “Asafoetida gives a comforting onion-garlic flavour in curries. It has a lingering taste that adds a special umami flavour to your dish,” he says.
Chef and food writer Mallika Badrinath feels that the spice’s medicinal qualities have only enhanced its place in India’s culinary heritage. “Asafoetida is often used as an instant remedy for heartburn, indigestion, constipation and reflux. According to Ayurveda, it has the ability to balance all the three doshas,” she says.
Commercially sold asafoetida is mixed with wheat flour and gum Arabic to temper the acrid taste of the resin. “The additives help to adjust the concentration of the asafoetida according to its usage. Asafoetida for appalams, for instance, will be different from that used for pickles or medicines,” says CJ Shankar, of the Madurai-based manufacturer PC Perungayam.
Hing kabuli sufaid (milky white asafoetida) and hing lal (red asafoetida) are the two types of resin available in the market. The white or pale variety is water soluble, whereas the dark or black variety is oil soluble.
PC Perungayam, which started in 1956 and has branches in Kerala and Karnataka, is one of many Indian family-run businesses that have specialised in processing this spice.
“The price of asafoetida fluctuates during the ban on resin collection every two years in the countries of origin,” says Shankar. “Processing units have to adjust to the market vagaries. While a kilo of asafoetida used to cost around ₹200 during my grandfather’s time, it has now gone up to ₹10,000-15,000 today,” he says.
The company imports its stock from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, through procuring agents in Mumbai, and transports it to Madurai by road. “We receive asafoetida resin as pellets in 20 kg tins, which we dilute with pure drinking water and filter down to a powdery concentrate with the help of cloth and steel mesh sieves. Twenty kilos of high quality resin paste can yield up to 500 kg of asafoetida powder,” says Shankar.
His business has been steady even duringlockdown because of the consistent demand for asafoetida in India. “Our ancestors knew the medicinal value of this spice, and it has somehow become a very important part of our diet over generations. The taste that it adds to any food preparation is simply amazing,” he says.