Post # 275 What the Hell is Asafetida?

July 16, 2014 at 4:40 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 275 What the Hell is Asafetida?

Anyone who’s known me longer than ten minutes knows that I like my daily comic strips.  There are several that I follow faithfully, and quote from regularly.  I was sitting in a high level managers’ meeting once and quoted a Peanuts cartoon.  The guy next to me smiled and said, “You can find a cartoon quote for anything.”  I agreed and said, “Yeah, you can.”  He shook his head.  “You misunderstood me. I meant YOU can find a cartoon quote for anything!”  I had to laugh cuz it’s true.  My brain is a garbage heap of many things, and I can usually find a comic strip or joke for anything happening around me.

One of my favorite comic strips is Zits written and drawn by the same team that does Baby Blues, another favorite, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman.   The kid that features in Zits is the quintessential teenager and funny as hell.  Periodically, he tries his hand at cooking, usually with mixed results.  One of my favorites is when he made appetizers out of beef jerky and spray cheese.  His dad loved them.  But another time he asked his mom if he could cook dinner and went to the cookbook.  He looked up at her and asked, “Do we have any fenugreek?  How about asafetida?”  She suggested that he look for recipes with ingredients from this hemisphere.  One of the things that made it funnier for me was the fact that I had been ready about both those ingredients just the week before.

So, what exactly is asafetida?  It sounds medicinal, or like something you’d use to bleach clothes or sanitize floors.  Well, it’s not much better than that.  Ever heard the word “fetid”?  Guess where it got its roots?  Asafetida is a tall plant with feathery leaves and yellow blossoms found in parts of Russia, China, and Afghanistan.  The part that’s used is the sap which is dried then ground.  It has a “rotten egg” smell, but when it’s cooked, it imparts a kind of oniony flavor.  This is all hearsay.  I’ve never tasted it, that I know of.  But the next time someone mentions asafetida, you can say “Oh, that tastes a little like onions.”  It does have some minor medicinal properties as most herbs and spices do.  Not sure I’d want to go chasing after it, though.

Fenugreek, on the other hand, is a pungent, earthy spice made from the seeds of the plant, although all parts of the plant can be used for different things.  It has a sweet and bitter flavor that some say is reminiscent of burnt sugar.  Fenugreek is used a lot in Mediterranean cooking, as well as in India.  It’s said that you take the dried seeds and just cover them with boiling water in a teapot to soak overnight.  In the morning, add fresh boiling water, lemon and honey, and you have a breakfast drink that is flavorful and healthy.  You first.  Fenugreek is highly useful in medicines as it reduces blood cholesterol and blood sugars so it’s desirable for diabetes sufferers as well as those of us battling high cholesterol levels.

Ever heard of Galangal?  It’s a root from the ginger family and is treated just like it.  It’s also known as khaa.  It’s primary use is in making curry, but many people think a tea made from the root dried then ground to a powder is not only tasty, but healthy.  In some recipes, it can be substituted for ginger since their flavor profile are so similar.

Ajowan is not a very popular spice but has seen a rise in demand recently.  It’s mostly found in ethnic markets specializing in Indian or Asian cuisine.  It comes from the same family as parsley and cumin and has the same strong, earthy flavors.  It tastes most like anise, a licorice flavor.  It is used sparingly since it can easily overpower other flavors.

Saffron is so familiar from The Food Network that everyone thinks they know all about it.  What most people don’t know is it’s one of the most expensive things on the planet.  Saffron is the dried pistil of the crocus plant.  Not just any crocus, but a particular crocus.  It can only be harvested by hand.  When it’s dried, it has a dark orange color.  When it’s used in cooking, it gives food a brilliant yellow color.  Saffron has a medicinal flavor to it and it’s very easy to use too much.  My favorite way to use it is in rice.  I make the rice with olive oil, good flavorful chicken stock, and a small pinch of saffron.  The rice turns bright yellow and has a wonderful flavor that goes well with almost everything.

Turmeric is easily one of my favorite spices.  I was first introduced to it back in college when I made Turmeric Chicken for some friends.  It’s used mainly with Indian foods, but can show up almost anywhere since, like saffron, it gives food a bright yellow color.  It has a strong flavor so should be used in moderation.  It’s flavor is different from saffron so don’t use the two interchangeably.  One of my favorite recipes with turmeric is Rice with Spinach.  Add 2-3 tablespoons olive oil to a medium hot pan and sauté  one cup chopped onion and 1-2 tablespoons of cumin seed.  Do not use cumin powder for this.  Stir in one teaspoon of turmeric and stir to blend well.  Add 1-2 tablespoons of butter and let melt while stirring to combine flavors.  Add one cup cooked long grain rice (I use my favorite, basmati) and stir to coat the rice and keep it warm.  Push all the rice to the side making a ring and add as much fresh spinach as you like.  Remember, the spinach will cook down drastically, so use enough.  When the spinach has wilted and warmed through, use a fork to push rice into spinach and combine.  Turn off heat and serve immediately.  Good stuff.

Going back to the Zits comic strip, when Jeremy finally found a recipe to make, he got creative since he didn’t have all the ingredients.  He ended up with Thai meatloaf and spaghetti noodles.  When mom and dad were discussing the meal, they found that Jeremy had cleaned everything up and put it all away.  The dad says, “So the only downside to his cooking is the food?”  The mom replies, “I can live with if you can.”





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