The magic of Hing

I still recall Rama Iyer from Thekke Gramam (South Village), the wizened old Ambi (Palghat Brahmin), no shirt, bent over from arthritis, wearing a discolored single dhoti floating high above his ankles, walking from his agraharam to the post office in Pallavur, umbrella in one hand and the yellow LG bag containing his Chella petti (I should explain – Chella petti or murukkaan petti contained chewing paraphernalia – betel leaves, arecanuts, small steel dubba with chunna – lime etc) tucked in his right arm pit. He would walk, oblivious to the occasional car or bike that whizzed past, sidestepping the cow that was sleeping on the road, looking at the mountains and the paddy fields, and muttering to himself. We would watch, lazily, lounging on the parapet wall, as one is wont to do while on a vacation, the strenuous & vociferous game of cricket having been completed and with the drinks break on….The yellow bag under Iyer’s armpit came to my mind today and I remembered the yellow tin it contained, paint peeling off, the tin that originally housed a block of LG Kayam..

Called Kayam or Perumkayam in Tamil and Malayalam, this is a spice that was delivered in a classic yellow dabba. At first it was a block of pure resin which we had to toast over fire and grind to powder before use. Of course, that version provided the ‘puuurfect’ flavor. The plastic dabba and today’s instant hing powder came much later. The yellow cloth bag that was gifted with the purchase of a large hing tin is legendary, in the old times, many ambi’s carried their Chella Petti and money bag in that yellow bag that faded to an ochre color with age.

While LG changed the dabba to white recently, Vandevi maintained the yellow color on the dubba. The tin & the resin block of Hing are difficult to find these days and not very popular. People say that it entered the South Indian cuisine as a substitute for garlic which chaste Brahmins never touched. It is explained by elders that asafoetida was used to mimic the flavors of garlic and/or onion. BTW, note that Garlic neutralizes Asfoetida, so they are not usually mixed in curries. Gujjus, Marwadi’s and to an extent Iyers have (used in sambar & rasam ‘only’) the greatest weakness for Hing.

Going south it is mostly used in ‘dal’ based curries like Sambar & Rasam. While almost all other spices have entered the side or main stream of other worlds, both in the east and the west, Asfoetida, to my knowledge remains only in the cuisine of South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

This aromatic resin comes from certain species of the giant fennels, plants of the genus ferula. When the plants are about four or five years old, they develop very thick and fleshy, carrot shaped roots. The resin is collected from these roots just before the plants start flowering in spring or early summer. The milky resinous liquid soon coagulates when exposed to air. The color darkens when it is sun dried into a solid form (This was the block of resin in old LG tins). The trading form is either the pure resin or so-called “compounded asafetida” which is a fine powder consisting to more than 50% of rice flour and gum arabic to prevent lumping. In Farsi it is called Angozad. The ang from farsi morphed to become Hing in Hindi.

Old Iranian cuisine used it for flavoring meatballs and in Afghanistan it is used in the preparation of dried meat. Strangely, modern Iranian cooking does not use asfoetida (Afghans also do not normally use hing these days in their cooking, nor do Kashmiris use Hing except for a rare meat dish). People there, who harvested this plant from the wild used it as a barter in exchange for other foods from the warmer southern parts of India, such as pepper! ‘Asafoetida’ is known in different names depending upon the flavor, odor and color, such as ‘Heeng’ and ‘Hingra’ varieties and on the basis of place of origin, as ‘Irani Heeng’ and ‘Patani Heeng’. A Crore Rs worth of asfoetida imported from Iran and Afghanistan is sold for many multiples of crores by a few companies after adding rice flour and gum arabica. Much of what we reprocess into those yellow & white dubbas is also re-exported... (LG incidentally is Laljee Godhoo – The Khimjee merchant family’s millions came made from the 'stink of devil’s dung' since 1894, employs 152 people and holds 70% world market share – one of the best heritage brands of India). Look at the LG girl, does it seem like she had a good plateful of rasam?

Well, Hing did make a westerly voyage centuries back. And what happened? It got fancy names like şeytan tersi or devil’s shit in Turkey. The terms in other languages all mean pretty much the same, German Teufelsdreck, French merde du diable, Czech čertovo lejno, Latvian velna sūds, Swedish dyvelsträck all mean devil’s dung.. In Latin is means stinking spice – that is the literal translation of As-foetida.

It was also popular in herbal medicines, supposedly pretty good for ‘various women’s ailments’ impotence and hysteria. It is also an antidote to opium.. In Jamaica, asafetida is traditionally applied to a baby's forehead in order to prevent spirits from entering the baby. They say that asafoetida may even offer some protection against carcinogenesis. It is a constituent in the popular pill - Hajmola. Asafoetida grows in Kashmir and parts of Punjab (In Hindu mythology, Kailas was abode to many hing plantations!!), so India can cultivate asafoetida domestically. If you want to read the very interesting story of Nichro’s attempt to import the best Hing from Delhi to USA, read it here, It is well worth the click.

But who said life is not funny? Hing is used for other purposes, not just cooking and herbal medicine. Believe it or not….…in the manufacture of exquisite perfumes (they even extract vanilla out of Asfoetida and is a constituent in what they call ‘essential oils’ for many cosmetics and perfumes or as a fixative in oriental fragrances after removing the Sulphur parts)…So when you see a topnotch model peddling a 500$ perfume, remember the devil’s shit…

All that said and done, I can assure you, a proper south Indian Sambar or Rasam can never be complete without the right dose of Asfoetida. When done right, the aroma that wafts from that concoction, wherever you are, be it California or Manchester UK, will bring back whole memories of your entire life in South India…It is more than likely that this is the main smell that you can easily remember from your childhood in India.

Kayamkulam, a city in Kerala has its name derived from Hing (Kayam) and a pond (Kulam). I have no clue how this came about. This place had a lot of Buddhista and Jains many years ago. Did they make Hing powder or something in this city? The search for an answer took me to a very interesting ‘filmi’ story of the Malayali lady Divya Dayanandan who married the Pakistani Aman and their story involving conversions, visas, love, elopement, citizenship… and that, on another day…

Pics - various internet sites, thanks to the original contributors..


narendra shenoy said…
Loved it! I am very fond of hing. My mom is very very finicky about where it is bought and how good it is. She has a local Kutchi merchant get it for her. I know that it is very expensive. Yes, it is a substitute for garlic. She makes a preparation called "hinga udda" which means water of hing. This is basically coconut, chilli and tamaring ground in a grinder, with some water till it is the consistency of thick soup and then hing is added by way of seasoning. Carries potatoes beautifully.

Mouth is watering at this moment.
Anonymous said…
anothher nice one!!
I heard 'kayam' also has something to do with snakes!!.
Nanditha Prabhu said…
I had an experience of hing's medicinal property when i got a bee sting during my childhood.
Maddy, hing's one of my favorite cooking ingredients, and I've been meaning to get some more info on it, so thanks for the detailed post. Btw, check out this article: - hing's primary purpose was to prevent gas, which would explain its use in dal based dishes.

Not sure what you mean by "BTW, note that Garlic neutralizes Asfoetida"
Maddy said…
first a reply to BPSK - Yup - Shoba Narayanan writes beautifully - sometime back i was considering reading her book monsoon diaries...Yes, it is supposed to relieve gas - hence a part of the herbal pill hajmola...

the thing about not mixing hing & garlic is not always the norm. Many communities do mix them, but historically one was meant as the substitute for the other. hence putting two of them was a sort of no-no. today in marathi & sindhi cooking you find will find this debate frequently picked up by food bloggers.
Maddy said…
narendra - must try out your moms recipe, it sounds interesting.
Ganesa - no clue about teh snakey connection, hv to research that. actually hing is used in vodoo & black magic - i had a para on it and more, but took it out to shorten the article.
nanditha - thats a new one - good for kadannal kuthal eh?
Maddy said…
Ganesa - found it - in various countries afghanistan, norway etc they used to rub hing on shoes to keep snakes away!!
Pradeep said…
This is a thesis on something we take so much for granted. I am as much fascinated with the ingredient as the English word for it.
Happy Kitten said…
Old timers still prefer to use the hard version, while for me the pdr is much more convenenient... it is good even for any meat preparations
Maddy said…
thanks pradeep - the beauty of this spice is that it is not even indian in origin...if that supply line breaks,how would the iyers react in chennai?

yes, you are right about that HK...
dhionlyone said…
Well written! Some stuff from wikipedia:
Typical asafoetida contains about 40-64% resin, 25% endogeneous gum, 10-17% volatile oil, and 1.5-10% ash.

Interesting that this composition has such amazing benefits! :-)
Never Mind!! said…
I love the aroma of hing and completely enjoy its taste in Dal. But the only thing is everytime I use hing for a Tadka, the strong aroma causes extreme irritation to my rooomates' nostrils. You know a way around that?
Maddy said…
thanks dhionly one and never mind..

well, you cant do very much about the smell of hing. cover the tadka - i cant think of any other solution..
Anonymous said…
Will be interested to know about Divya Dayanandan. There should be some compulsions back home for a malayali girl to goto Pakistan
Maddy said…
i doubt if i will write about divya D - she & family are living happily in dubai - i think she met this Aman while doing medicine in lonely Khazakstan...there are plenty of news reports on her story
Hemant Trivedi said…

You and I have a thing in common. "Asfoetida'
Hing, perungayam or whatever we call it as.

Just read through my saga and you will know how madly in love I am with Hing.

Nichiro aka Hemant Trivedi

You have links to my website and blog there as my signature.
Maddy said…
hi hemant, i have read your interesting story and mentioned it in my article as well - see para 8 from top, last line!! Nichiros story!
Everdene said…
Hi Maddy,
I'm in Afghanistan working on a supply chain study of hing - interested in the economic condition of plant collectors, market linkages and sustainable management. Found your blog helpful and interesting.

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