The Bitter Taste of Relief with Asafoetida
By Sheela Rani Chunkath | Published: 03rd August 2014 06:00 AM |
One day my dad, who is almost 86 years old, called me somewhat desperately saying he had acute stomach pain. I immediately went across to his residence and tried ascertaining the proximate cause of the trouble. He had been prescribed an antibiotic for a severe lung infection and I thought that the drug could be the culprit. After fixing up to see a physician, who was free only later in the day, I gave him half a teaspoon of asafoetida diluted in warm water. I also got a nice hot water bottle and suggested he place it near the pain area. Both these remedies helped him feel much better, and when we went to see the physician in the evening, the pain had all but disappeared.
I have written about ashta churnam and other digestives and gas dispeller such as vayu gulika which are invaluable. If they are not readily available, you can rely on asafoetida for a quick pain relief. Most Indian kitchens will have asafoetida, especially, south Indian ones, where it is extensively used in cooking as a flavour enhancer and digestive.
Asafoetida (scientific name Ferula assafoetida) is the dried gum oleoresin which is exuded from the underground taproots of the plant Ferula, which grows in parts of Punjab and Kashmir. The bulk of asafoetida, however, used in India comes from Iran or Afghanisthan. The word asafoetida is a combination of the Persian word ‘aza’ meaning resin and the Latin word ‘foetida’ meaning stinking. ‘Heeng’, the Hindi word for asafoetida, comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Han’ meaning to kill, probably an allusion to its deathly smell.
The plant is difficult to cultivate. When the plant is about four years old, an incision is made on the taproot and the resin which oozes is collected over a three-month period. About a kilo of resin can be collected from one plant. Asafoetida collected in Afghanistan comes from the Herat province bordering Iran. Herat and Chaghcharan are major centres of asafoetida in Afghanisthan from where it is sent to Kandahar and then to Quetta in Pakistan and then to India.
The asafoetida that you get and use in your kitchens is not pure asafoetida as the dried asafoetida is ground and mixed with gum Arabic and flour. Pure asafoetida is very hot. Also, since it is a costly spice, mixing makes it more cheaply available. Charaka and Sushruta have used asafoetida for many health disorders such as for indigestion, colic pain, tympanitis, internal catarrh and as an appetiser. Asafoetida is also used in Ayurvedic medicines for amenorrhoea and dysmenorrhoea as it increases pitta but reduces vata and kapha. Asafoetida is, however, not recommended during pregnancy. Asafoetida is used for lung and related ailments such as asthma and bronchitis. It is also helpful in lowering blood pressure and is said to have anti-coagulant properties much like aspirin. Labelling of asafoetida products are not very clear about the percentage of asafoetida to other admixtures.
The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act requires at least 5 per cent of raw heeng in compounded asafoetida. The Consumer Education and Research Society in its magazine, The Consumer Magazine, conducted a test among 17 leading brands of asafoetida and found ‘Ramdev Premium’ to be the best—containing 9.1 per cent of alcoholic extract (a proof regarding the quantity of asafoetida) present in the mixture. So do check the labels and make a comparison before buying asafoetida, as many producers exploit the consumers by not providing information regarding the quantity of asafoetida actually present in the compounded mixture. Use asafoetida with caution; as I have indicated earlier, it is heat-producing. So if you have a stomach pain, don’t use more than a quarter spoon at a time and not more than twice a day.
The writer was earlier Health Secretary, Tamil Nadu, and is currently Additional Chief Secretary, and
Chairman and MD, Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation. She can be reached at Sheelarani.
Earlier articles can be accessed at