Commercially available Asafoetida products
Asafoetida is not blessed with a pleasant smell. This spice is the resin from the genus of giant fennel which is mainly grown in Iran and Afghanistan and is used in a powdered or paste version in Indian cooking. Its odour is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma, which is nauseating in quantities, will contaminate other spices stored nearby. However, its odour and flavour become much milder and more pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.
Asafoetida is used in minute quantities, mostly in vegetarian cooking in Yarlpanam and South India, to enhance the dish with its strong onion-garlic flavour. It is used in dishes like lentil soups, Rasam and pickles, often to prevent flatulence. It is also used in some pappadums as a seasoning.
This spice is used as an aid to digestion and for religious and social reasons (certain castes in India being forbidden to eat garlic, of which its taste is reminiscent.
Asafoetida is used as an antidote for flatulence and is also used for respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. Its vile smell has led to many unusual medical claims, mostly stemming from the belief that its odour would act as a deterrent to germs. As a folk tradition remedy for children's colds, it is mixed into a foul-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child's neck. The shock of the smell was once thought to calm hysteria.