Roman’s loved Hing or Asafoetida, but Indians popularised it

Roman’s loved Hing or Asafoetida, but Indians popularised it

Tracing the origins of hing and a recipe for spiced potatoes

There are more than 40 varieties of spices in India. Every kind has a distinct flavour and colour. One such aromatic spice is hing or asafoetida.
Spices help create layers in cooking Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: There are more than 40 varieties of spices in India. Every kind has a distinct flavour and colour. One such aromatic spice is hing or asafoetida. This ochre-coloured condiment is derived from the resin of fennel plants grown abundantly in the mountains of Afghanistan and Iran. So how did this seasoning become a part of Indian cooking?

Speaking to Gulf News Food, Chef Thoufeeq Zakaria of Bombay Braisserie, Taj, Dubai said: “When I started my career, I thought hing was only used in Indian cooking, but once I started to learn more about this spice it blew my mind. Hing used to be a celebrated ingredient in Roman cuisine, probably before the 16th century. There are old recipe books that mention this spice, as an ingredient used in many meat-based dishes. While it is unclear why the spice got lost in Roman cookbooks, many believe it could be because of the strong pungent smell and flavour."

Sous Chef Thoufeeq Zakaria, Taj Dubai
Sous Chef Thoufeeq Zakaria, Taj Dubai Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Recalling a Portuguese Jewish physician, herbalist and naturalist - Garcia de Orta’s book – The flora of Indian subcontinent, Chef Thoufeeq explains how he was amazed by this versatile spice’s popularity in Europe, sadly forgotten now.

As per the US National Libr Medicine’s article on asafoetida, the smell is described as fetid and taste nauseating
As per the US National Library of Medicine’s article on asafoetida, the smell is described as fetid and taste nauseating Image Credit: Shutterstock

He said: “I remember reading the book and was intrigued to learn how hing was used in food and medicines in India." In writer John O’Connel’s book – The book of spice, it is mentioned that Mughals first brought hing to India in the 16th century.

It looks like a rock in its raw form, but one mostly finds it in its powdered incarnation in pantries. It is safe to say that just as the miso paste adds an umami flavour to Japanese cuisine, hing is to Indian cooking.

As per, asafoetida (often called hing) has stayed mostly true to its roots. People from France to Turkey have coined all kinds of names for it, of which “devil’s sweat” is one of the polite ones. Food historians believe that this spice was used to treat ailments, a promising ingredient yet a pungent-smelling one. Upon cooking, the pungent aroma reduces to a mild smell. Imagine how the combination of garlic and leek would be. Something similar.

As per the US National Library of Medicine’s article on asafoetida, the smell is described as fetid and taste nauseating. In earlier times, a small piece was worn around the neck to ward off diseases such as a cold. It is unsure if the smell warded off people or it really had a medicinal property. In ancient Iran, this spice was used as a condiment and was called ‘food of the deities'. While many French cooks would rub this spice on hot plates, typically used for serving beef steak. Many recipes for Worcestershire sauce, a fermented condiment popular in English cuisine, uses a hint of asafoetida as an ingredient.

This pungent smelling spice is widely known for its medicinal properties across various cultures. For instance, hot water extract of the dried gum is consumed for whooping cough in Afghanistan. In China, it is used as a vermifuge (an agent that destroys or expels parasitic worms), and in the Middle East it is used in treating cough, asthma and bronchitis, while Indians use it as a digestive aid and for stomach aches.

Head Chef Faizan Ali at Khyber restaurant, Dubai, told Gulf News Food: "Many Indian communities in India use hing, especially Jains (a community known to consume vegetarian foods, including rooted vegetables such as potato, garlic, onion). It is commonly used in chonk or tempering. Apart from this, it is known to have health benefits too; for instance, it is good for the stomach especially during stomach ailments or to treat flatulence."

Head chef Faizan Ali at Khyber, Dukes the Palm, Dubai
Head chef Faizan Ali at Khyber, Dukes the Palm, Dubai Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Why does India not grow this spice?

As much as Indians love this spice, its subtropical and humid climate makes it challenging to grow the plant. Asafoetida thrives in dry soil and moderate temperatures below 35C. This is why most of this spice is imported from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And it is then processed and packaged in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Only last year did India decide to start growing this plant in the cold valleys of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

Hing – its many forms and uses in Indian cooking

Asafoetida is one of the most distinctive spices used in south Indian cuisine. It is known for its ability to transform a dish into something magical. Head Chef Bharat Sarkar at Nawab restaurant, Dubai said: “Hing is widely used in the southern and northern part of India. In the southern region food, it is used as a substitute for onion and garlic. While in the northern part, hing is used as a final garnish on gravies or curries." It is also used in achaar or pickles.

According to Chef Zakaria, hing can be found in many forms. “We have the raw sticky form or complex, stone-like form. Sometimes it comes premixed with wheat flours and other spices. However, the mixed form tastes much milder because of its dilution, making it more popular these days."

Chef Sarkar added: “Hing can be used in many different ways. One can use them as a garnish by sautéing them in ghee or clarified butter with a combination of other herbs and sprinkling it on curries. However, use only a pinch as it has a strong flavour. In the UAE, I have observed, not many people are fond of this spice, maybe because of its pungency.” While a pinch of hing is more than enough for most dishes, one needs to know how much and for how long to heat it. If used too much, it could end up turning the dish bitter in taste.

Head chef Bharat Sarkar, Nawab restaurant, Dubai
Head chef Bharat Sarkar, Nawab restaurant, Dubai Image Credit: Supplied

Here is a recipe by Chef Sarkar using hing:

Hing aloo recipe
Hing aloo recipe Image Credit: Shutterstock

Aloo or potato Hing

Serves: 2 to 3

Preparation time: 15 minutes 

Cooking time: 30 minutes


500 gms baby potatoes

1.5 tbsp cumin seeds or jeera

1/2 tsp hing

Salt as per taste

1 tsp red or chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder or haldi

1/2 tsp coriander powder or dhania

1 tsp ginger, finely chopped

1/2 tsp dry mango powder or amchur

Mustard oil as required

Chopped coriander leaves to garnish


1. Wash and clean the baby potatoes.

2. Boil the potatoes with water and salt. When it is cooked, mash it unevenly. Leaving chunks of potatoes as is.

3. In a pan, heat mustard oil on high heat and then add cumin seeds and hing. After they begin to crackle, add the ginger and mix well.

4. Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, salt and mix in the potatoes immediately.

5. With the help of a spatula, combine it well, then sauté for 5 minutes on a low flame until the potatoes get a lightly roasted texture and an outer crust.

6. Add dry mango powder towards the end, don’t cook it. Adding this gives a slightly tangy taste and balances out all the flavours.

Garnish with finely chopped fresh coriander leaves. Enjoy Aloo Hing with fresh poori or puri – deep-fried Indian bread or phulka – unleavened Indian flatbread.

Recipe courtesy: Chef Bharat Sarkar, Head chef at Nawab restaurant, Dubai

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