If you have read the “About Me” section of my website, you would have learnt that Hing is one of my absolute favorite spices. When I think of Hing, the aroma of it sizzling away in ghee comes to mind. It makes Indian food taste all the more Indian. But, I am sure there are a ton of people who wonder what Hing is.
Hing is the Hindi name for Asafoetida (pronounced as written). Funnily enough, the origin of the word Asafoetida comes from two languages – “Asa” means resin in Parsi and “Foetidus” means smelling in Latin. Why is the name important? Because across the world, its many different languages and the many different names, this unusual spice was literally termed “dung of devil” because of its pungent, sulfurous, rotten smell. And yet, not only does this remain one of my favorite spices, but is a staple across Indian households.
Hing comes from an herb called Ferula, which is from the Celery/Fennel family. Essentially, the resin that is extracted from the roots and stems of the Ferula herb is dried into a resin-mass and turned into a fine powder (often mixed with wheat or rice flour to prevent clumping).
Let’s talk about Hing’s place in the Indian spice pantry despite its unpleasant aroma. Because of its origins, Hing imparts a deep onion and garlic aroma. For the vegetarian population in India and certain communities within India who don’t consume onion and garlic (that story for another day!), Hing is a huge flavor booster. For vegetarians, whose protein source is often legumes (particularly more so in the south of India), dal is always cooked with Hing tadka (A tempering of Hing, Cumin, Green Chillies, Curry Leaves and other spices that vary across households). Alternatively, Hing is also used for subzis where it is first fried in ghee with other spices and then vegetables are added to it to cook.
So, it is fair to say that Hing is a spice of vegetables, and not meat. But it is important to use it judiciously so as to not overpower the dish. If the pure version (the resin) if being used, a pea sized amount fried in ghee will allow the flavors to disperse well and be enough for a large pot of the dish. On the other hand, with a compounded version (which has anti-clumping additives), a little more than the pea sized amount can be added (because the flavor will not be as intense) and it does not necessarily need to be fried in ghee.
Just like several other Indian spices, Hing is not only a culinary spice, it also has medicinal properties. For instance, Hing is believed to be a remedy for digestive disorders such as flatulence and irritable bowel syndrome. Furthermore, it is believed Hing is a great spice for women’s ailments, particularly after before and childbirth.
There are a couple of different brands that I use. One of the most common brands that most Indian households will resonate with is the LG (Laljee Godhoo) brand. This is a compounded Hing that contains Gum Arabic and Wheat Starch as anti-clumping agents. I have also used the Vandevi brand which contains Rice Flour, Gum Arabic, Wheat Flour and Turmeric, therefore giving it a slightly yellowish tinge. Both of these are readily available at Indian grocery stores and on Amazon. There are several other brands, but I will recommend these since I am most familiar with them.
Food safety tip: If you or someone in your family has a wheat allergy, you should avoid using compounded Hing (especially avoid ones that contain wheat starch). There are organic and gluten-free versions, as well as compounded versions without wheat starch/flour available on Amazon for you to try
Hing is a spice that has not yet made its way to the mainstream to become a widely used spice. Because of its aroma, it may be a shock for first-time non-Indian users. But I strongly encourage those who have not tried it to certainly give it a try and you will see the result with an intensely flavorful and aromatic Indian dish.