Asafoetida: Satanically stinky spice

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[N.B.:  This post contains a very important set of linguistic questions about the historical evolution of the seasoning in question.  The long lists of Eurasian terms provided reveal tantalizing semantic and phonological interconnections among terms that are from different language families.  I invite historical linguists to comment on the interrelationships among all the relevant languages cited herein.]

A friend gave me a little bottle of this powerful, pungent spice.  It seems to be a unique sort of flavoring that stinks yet enhances the flavor of all sorts of Indian, Central Asian, and other regional cuisines.  At first I was just going to write a very brief note about it to pass around among family and friends, but the more I looked into this unique spice, aromatically and linguistically the more interesting it became, so I decided that I would write a rather full-blown Language Log post about it.  Voilà!

Hidden in the name was attestation of the spice's foul flavor, but I didn't know what the "asa-" part meant.  Upon investigating, I discovered that the English name, asafoetida, is derived from asa, a latinized form of Persian azā ("mastic", cf. "masticate"), and Latin foetidus ("fetid; stinky").

Here's a basic description of and introduction to the spice:

Asafoetida (/æsəˈfɛtɪdə/; also spelled asafetida) is the dried latex (gum oleoresin) exuded from the rhizome or tap root of several species of Ferula, perennial herbs of the carrot family. It is produced in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, northern South Asia, and Northwest China (Xinjiang). Different regions have different botanical sources.

Asafoetida has a pungent smell, as reflected in its name, lending it the common name of "stinking gum". The odour dissipates upon cooking; in cooked dishes, it delivers a smooth flavour reminiscent of leeks or other onion relatives. Asafoetida is also known colloquially as "devil's dung" in English (and similar expressions in many other languages).

Here's a list of names for this unusual flavoring in different languages:

Language Name Literal meaning/Notes
Afrikaans duiwelsdrek Devil's dirt
Arabic ḥiltīt  
Assamese hiṅ (হিং)  
Bengali hiṅ (হিং)  
Burmese shein-kho (ရှိန်းခို)  
Dutch duivelsdrek  
English Devil's dung  
Persian Anghoze  
Finnish pirunpaska Devil's shit
Finnish pirunpihka Devil's resin
French merde du Diable Devil shit
German Teufelsdreck, Devil's dirt
Hebrew chiltit (חלתית) you got sick
Hebrew chitt[7]  
Hindi hīṅg (हींग)  
Kannada ingu (ಇಂಗು)  
Kashmiri yang’eh (ینگہہ)  
Kashubian czarcé łajno chort dung
Malayalam kāyaṃ (കായം) attested as raamadom in the 14th century
Marathi hinga (हिंग)  
Nepali hing (हिङ्ग)  
Odia hengu (ହେଙ୍ଗୁ)  
Pashto hënjâṇa (هنجاڼه)  
Polish czarcie łajno chort dung
Swedish dyvelsträck Devil's dirt
Tamil perunkayam (பெருங்காயம்)  
Telugu inguva (ఇంగువ)  
Turkish Şeytan boku Satan's shit
Turkish Şeytan otu Satan's weed
Turkish Şeytan tersi  
Urdu hīṅg (ہینگ)  

(Wikipedia)

The Chinese version of Wikipedia has a few other historically important words for asafoetida in Asian languages:

Chinese āwèi 阿魏 (Eastern Han reconstruction *ʔɑ ŋwəs)

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Tocharian (Kuchean) aṅkwaṣ — this link to the extinct medieval Indo-European language is vitally important for unravelling the transmission of this spice and words for it across Eurasia

Other Chinese names are yāngkuì 央匱, āyú 阿虞, āyújié 阿虞截 (all given in MSM [Modern Standard Mandarin] pronunciation)

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Persian ānghūzeh آنغوزه

xíngyú (MSM pron.) 形虞

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Sanskrit hiṅgu हिङ्गु

Still more Chinese names are xīngqú 興瞿, xīngqú 興渠. xūnqú 薰渠, hāxīní 哈昔尼 (all given in MSM)

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Persian kasni کسنی

Heilítítí 黑黎提提

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Arabic ḥiltīt حلتيت

(source)

The Chinese version of Wikipedia states that asafoetida has a strong smell of garlic and onions, and may also be used in fragrances and medicines.  It is accompanied by four striking, informative illustrations.

I prize this sentence from the Wikipedia article on asafoetida:

"It is sometimes used to harmonise sweet, sour, salty, and spicy components in food." 

Considering asafoetida's ability to accomplish this amazing feat, it's no wonder that it has such zany names in the various languages of the world.

For all of these reasons, I think of asafoetida as what might be called "wànnéng yào 萬能藥" ("panacea") or "wǔxiāng fěn 五香粉" ("five-spice powder"), although not in a technical sense, but more as jocular, private terms.

It's a good thing that I sent around a short preliminary version of this post, because it elicited the following:

sister Heidi — Also called hing if memory serves me right. It is great for digestion.  (Since she is an Ayurveda specialist, it must be true, even though Asafoetida smells bad.)

son Thomas Krishna — I wonder why that spice is one of my friend Gene Hill's favorites. I seem to remember him liking it in New Orleans dishes and he put it in something called a "Roux", which is a liquidy flour paste kind of like a watery gravy.

brother Denis — There is a fascinating story around the vanished spice used by the Romans — silphium. Its flavor profile is thought to be somewhat similar to asafoetida, but more lively.  Silphium was prized by the Romans and consumed in great quantities, but hard to cultivate in Italy. It died out from overharvesting.  I read somewhere that there is a small region in north Africa where a similar plant grows wild. It is being propagated for widespread planting in the future.

I should mention that asafoetida is one of the 24 Eurasian spices that are featured in Gábor Parti's magisterial "Mapping the language of spices", forthcoming as Sino-Platonic Papers 337.  In it, he documents how the spice and the words for it in many languages circulated outward from the Iranian speaking areas of Central Asia.

 

Selected readings

[Thanks to Diana Shuheng Zhang]



29 Comments

  1. Denis Maiir said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 5:00 pm

    I seem to recall from reading RULIN-WAISHI (儒林外史) that A-wei (阿魏) was sometimes eaten by examination candidates who had trouble maintaining alertness.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 5:01 pm

    Worth noting, perhaps, that hing/asafœtida is used in Jain cookery as a substitute for onions and garlic, both of which are proscribed for Jains. I find the flavour very moreish and routinely add it to Indian vegetarian dishes.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 5:13 pm

    "moreish" — nice, new word for me

    The Buddhists, who arose around the same time and for similar reasons as the Jains (reformers against Hinduism), also proscribed allium (onion, garlic, scallion, shallot, leek, and chives).

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 5:37 pm

    Also (sadly) worth noting is that hing as sold online or in ethnic grocery stores is not necessarily pure — at one end of the extreme, consider the ingredients listed for a well-known brand : Wheat Flour, Stabiliser: Gum Arabic, Asafoetida (5%). Source : https://tinyurl.com/fivepercenthing

  5. Y said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 5:52 pm

    Hebrew חִלְתִּית ḥiltîṯ does not at all mean 'you got sick'; maybe someone or something confused it with חָלִית ḥālîṯ, 'you (sg.f.) got sick'? In any case that would not work as a name for anything.

    The word appears in the Mishna, and was identified by Maimonides as Arabic حلتيت‎ ḥiltīt.

  6. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 6:44 pm

    The plant indeed belongs to the same genus as Sylphion, which is now extinct (or perhaps not). Used by the Romans, and brought from Cyrenaica (Lybia) by the Greeks, mentioned by Pausanias. See the "Dry Tree" post.

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/miracle-plant-eaten-extinction-2000-years-ago-silphion

  7. AntC said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 6:56 pm

    a unique sort of flavoring that stinks yet enhances the flavor of all sorts of Indian, Central Asian, and other regional cuisines.

    The wholefood shop where I used to get mine for Indian cookery refused to allow the stink inside: you had to go round the back to a sort of garden shed where it was stored. (Which did indeed stink.) With the spice then double-bagged you had to walk outside the shop to take it away.

    … onions and garlic, both of which are proscribed for Jains.

    … avoid root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and garlic because tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up, and because a bulb or tuber's ability to sprout is seen as characteristic of a higher living being.
    [wp on Jainism]

    latex … exuded from the rhizome or tap root of several species of Ferula, perennial herbs of the carrot family.
    [wp on asafoetida]

    Can you collect the latex without 'pulling up' or otherwise injuring tiny organisms around the tap root? Seems rather bending the rules to me.

  8. MattF said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 7:00 pm

    Another use for asafetida was for filling asafetida bags, which would be hung around an unfortunate user’s neck to ward off diseases. Current theory is that the odor kept people away, thereby reducing contagion.

  9. Shivam Bhatt said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 7:36 pm

    Hing is amazing and makes Gujarati food *work*. Without it you would have a noticeable decrease in flavor. The stuff may stink raw (I keep mine in a plastic container and that in a plastic zip lock bag), but when cooked in ghee, it's incredibly mellow and beautifully fragrant, like the best kind of alliums. I think folks give it nasty names to keep this gold for themselves!

  10. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 8:01 pm

    A long chapter (PP. 353-362) of Sino-Iranica (B. Laufer) should not be forgotten.

  11. Steve Morrison said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 9:28 pm

    Here is another article about silphium, refuting the belief that it was an effective contraceptive.

  12. martin schwartz said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 10:24 pm

    The most conservative form in Persian is angužad,
    where angu- is probably < *hingu-, and žad = 'gum'.
    Martin Schwartz

  13. chris Button said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 11:30 pm

    And the Burmese form shein-kho ရှိန်းခို is also ultimately from that same source via Sanskrit हिङ्गु • hiṅgú (Burmese script ဟိင်္ဂု whence ရှိန်းခို)

  14. Chris Button said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 11:41 pm

    I should add that the hr- spelling ရှ in ရှိန်းခို is not reflective of an actual rhotic but rather a lack of separation of hj- and hr-.

  15. Gabor Parti said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 11:48 pm

    One of the greatest resources I have found on asafoetida is a relatively recent book chapter by Angela K.C. Leung and Ming Chen that tracks the whole cultural/linguistic history and journey of this substance discussing its names, emergence, global spread, usage, adulteration, etc, with an emphasis on its role around the eastern terminus of the silk roads. And a section on the stench, of course.

    ***
    Leung, A. K. C., & Chen, M. (2019). The Itinerary of Hing/Awei/Asafetida across Eurasia, 400–1800. In P. H. Smith (Ed.), Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices, and Knowledges across Eurasia (pp. 141–164). University of Pittsburgh Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh9vzc1.10

  16. GF said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 5:23 am

    According to Klein's etymological dictionary of Hebrew, חלתית is of unknown origin, and the Arabic term comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic.

    https://www.sefaria.org/Klein_Dictionary%2C_%D7%97%D6%B4%D7%9C%D6%B0%D7%AA%D6%B4%D6%BC%D7%99%D7%AA?lang=bi

    חִלְתִּית f.n. assa foetida (botany). [Together with Aram. חִלְתִּיתָא, Syr. חֶלְתִּיתָא of unknown etymology. Arab. ḥiltīth is a Heb. or Aram. loan word.]

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 5:53 am

    Chris, your last two posts appeared to contain non-renderable glyphs (e.g., U+103E — MYANMAR CONSONANT SIGN MEDIAL HA) until I installed the Code2000 font.

  18. Francesco Brighenti said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 7:27 am

    The latex from the Ferula assa-foetids plant, having a pungent, alliaceous odor due to the presence of sulfur compounds, is traditionally used in South Asia as a flavoring agent attributed with strong medicinal properties. I have always thought that the Sanskrit name of this plant, hiṅgu, of unknown derivation, is cognate with the word hiṅgula, meaning 'cinnabar', the mineral form of mercury sulfide. Both smell of sulfur.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 9:38 am

    @Y

    Thanks for setting the record straight about "You got sick". That really bothered me.

  20. Gene Hill said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 7:07 pm

    This subject is exciting to me from the culinary aspects. In New Orleans, Assafitida is a principle ingredient in both Cajun and Creole recipes. The Cajuns brought it with them from Canada and the Creoles from Haiti There used to be several options available but I long ago chose to buy it as Hing or as Worcestershire Sauce. What I wanted to contribute was it's Cajun Name, which I learned from a Cajun chef when I went into a kitchen to inquire about the recipe. It reflects in French your title of "Stinky Spice" Bouse du diable"

  21. V said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 10:19 am

    It's been getting increasingly difficult to find pure asafoetida — instead it's increasingly being sold cheaper adulterated with turmeric. The store I used to buy it from does not stock pure anymore — not that I mind much, I don't cook anything with asafoetida that that don't also use turmeric for, but I'm clinging to my supply of pure hing.

  22. V said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 10:22 am

    But yeah, Jain dishes require hing to replace onions and garlic.

  23. V said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 10:28 am

    Lucas Christopoulos : Some people claim to have found a plant that is at least related to Sylphion in Turkey, but it has not been confirmed.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 4:17 pm

    V — "It's been getting increasingly difficult to find pure asafoetida" — I have no idea where you are based, but if you can, you might want to investigate "Planet Spices" pure asafœtida, 100gm/3.5oz for £12-50, USD 17-00, 1kg for £71-60, USD89.99 . It is the only brand I now use.

  25. V said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 2:18 pm

    Philip Taylor : Thanks, I'll see if they deliver here. When I went to their website there was a huge banner at the top advertising a "limited time offer" for two kilos of pure asafoetida and free shipping.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 6:08 pm

    Well, no matter where you reside, "Planet Spices" claim to deliver there —

    Asafoetida Bulk Buy Best Offer.
    Weight: 2 Kg + 200 g more absolutely Free.
    Packaging: In High Quality Food Grade Packs of 500 grams each.
    Shipping: Free Express Shipping Worldwide with Proper Tracking.

  27. Alex Martini said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 7:36 pm

    Philip Taylor, one reason to mix other ingredients with the asafoetida powder is for ease of measuring. The bottle in my cabinet appears >75% wheat starch, based on the nutrition label, and I use the smallest sprinkle of it when cooking — less than 1/8 teaspoon. Although I'm sure the manufacturer doesn't mind that it makes the product cheaper.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    December 16, 2023 @ 10:32 am

    I would agree that if one is cooking a single portion (of, say, sag aloo, then deciding exactly how much pure hing would be required is non-trivial, but I would nonetheless prefer that it be diluted with (say) turmeric, which has a genuine place in the final dish, rather than wheat starch which I would prefer not to feature in the ingredients at all.

  29. ardj said,

    December 18, 2023 @ 6:59 am

    @Phillip Taylor – thank you for Planet Spice which could be useful, though I normally use the UK's The Spice Shop for spices unavailable locally. Incidentally my current bottle of Asafoetida / Hing is from a Cotswolds supplier, and I have no idea how I came by it, but it has asafoetida blended with fenugreek – works very well for me.

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