Hing is said to have travelled to Europe from Afghanistan with the phalanx of Alexander’s army when it returned after the death of the great conqueror. The Romans knew it, but used it only for the purposes of exorcism. By Renaissance, the exotic ingredient was forgotten. Most people were put off by the strong smell that lingered on the breath long after one had consumed it. Iranian scientists like Avicenna were aware of its therapeutic properties. Ancient Persians called it the ‘Food of Gods’, but, strangely, none used it in their kitchen.
Western descriptions of hing aka asafoetida have not been flattering. In the culinary literature, it was derisively referred to as ‘devil’s dung’ or a bit more politely as ‘stinking gum’. The resinous sticky excretions from the root of this tuber exude a strong smell that most prefer to identify as stench. To our mind, this is the classic case of giving the dog a bad name and hanging it.
Our eyes were opened, or to be precise, nostrils tantalised and the palate titillated to the pleasures of hing by our late friend, Hindi poet Kamlesh. He had just returned from the strife-torn Kabul and brought back with him a kilogram of the best quality stuff, risking his life and limb as he searched for it in the hazardous bazaars. He was cooking a simple, yet sublime, lunch for himself and the house was redolent with a strange fragrance. When we got curious, he quipped that it shouldn’t have been difficult for a foodie to identify. To cut a long story short, that was the day we discovered the difference between pure and adulterated hing. Adulterated isn’t the right word though. What we mean is hing diluted by blending it with flour. This is what is usually sold in the market for use in the household kitchen as bandhaani hing under different brand names. Even this needs to be handled with care as use of more than just a pinch of hing can mar a well-made dish!
Pure hing has a translucent crystalline form and it almost shines like a gem. Admittedly, it has a very strong overpowering smell and has to be kept in containers with tight-fitting lids, lest it rub off on any companion on the shelf. However, in the hands of a master, it releases an aroma no less alluring than saffron.
Indians have for millennia valued hing for its medicinal properties. According to time-tested ayurvedic prescriptions, it is an effective digestive, carminative, aperitif that reduces flatulence. Hingashtak choorna combines asafoetida with seven other ingredients to come up with a desi ‘fruit salt powder’. This has provided the inspiration for hing goli encountered at many a pickle and chutney shops. This reminds us of the aam ka sukha hing wala achaar that is best relished with day-old pooris or flaky parantha at room temperature. This is a UP specialty and the best we ever tasted was at a Baniya friend’s house in Agra. After peeling the unripe mango, the stone is removed and the thinly sliced fruit is then pickled sans oil with salt and a touch of red chilli powder. Cooked in the sun, it is simply divine.
Purveyors of chaat rely on it to prepare the paani for golgappas. And can one imagine Rajasthani kachori without hing? The Jains and Marwari communities have traditionally eschewed the tamasik garlic. Hing is substituted to provide the same sulphur notes.
Folk wisdom tells us that hing should be used in tempering of lentils and vegetables that are hard to digest or to alleviate the distress caused by changing seasons. Maash lentil is a prime example of this. Many other lentils become better after a hing-jeere ka tadka. Ditto for aloo dom and its cousins like hing jeere ke aloo and more. There are a few recipes in the Kashmiri Pandit wazwan that rely only on hing to bring out the natural flavours of the main ingredient, for example haak and kadam saag. Chillies, dried red or fresh green, certainly play the second fiddle.
Let this not convey that hing is a reliable friend only for the vegetarians. In Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, it is one of the trinity — hing, saunf (fennel seeds), saunth (dried ginger powder) — that makes the roganjosh come alive.
Hing is indispensable in everyday cooking in South India. Sambar, rasam and pickles register its presence subtly. It is a favourite with the Gujaratis, who, like Marwaris, are largely vegetarian and fond of dishes prepared from gram flour (considered hard to digest) and are exceptionally fond of deep-fried snacks.
Ironically, though India is the largest consumer of hing in the world, the plant was never cultivated at home. Good quality hing was imported from Afghanistan and more recently from Iran and Central Asian republics. Now, however, attempts have been made to grow hing in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti regions of Himachal Pradesh from saplings developed from seeds imported from Iran. As we await the first harvest, the excitement is rising. Will the new chapter in the story of hing conclude with unimagined crowning glory?
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