Hing-ing on history: Amid news that India will grow Ferula Asafoetida on home soil, retracing the spice's story

History has countless ‘what if’ moments, but none comes close (in view of this week’s news about the growing of Ferula Asafoetida in Himachal Pradesh) to what might have happened if asafoetida — hing, in Hindi — grew in India. It could well have, seeing that the army of Alexander the Great even carried a plant with them when they came to India in the 4th century BCE. For Alexander’s army, it was a case of mistaken identity: they thought it was silphium, a rare plant that was used to tenderise meat. The army came across it while crossing over the Hindu Kush mountains into India and the Hindu Kush — Afghanistan and Iran — has been the cradle of this remarkable spice that is full of sulphur compounds (as are onions and garlic, which it replaces in our vegetarian cuisines).

History is usually written through the prism of political conquests — wars fought, battles won, forts breached, kings overthrown. No history writer worth their salt would have thought of mentioning the plant that Alexander’s army had painstakingly carried with them. Or whether it had been flung away in impatience, when it was found not to be the umbelliferous plant that they thought it was. Had they cast it away in appropriately dry, sandy soil at a certain elevation — 4,000 metres above sea level would have worked just fine — that receives around 200 mm precipitation (rain and snow) a year, why, who knows! India might just have been one of the principal growers of this all-important spice and we would not have had to fritter away our foreign exchange on importing what was growing on our hillsides.

On Firstpost: India, largest importer of heeng, begins cultivation in country for first time in Himachal Pradesh

Ferula is the family name (genus) of a few related species. The one that everybody’s talking about currently is Ferula asafoetida; others are Ferula alliacea, Ferula rubricaulis, Ferula narthex and Ferula foetida. All of them require similar growing conditions; all of them have fat, carrot-shaped roots from where the thick white sap drips slowly, to be collected periodically, and it is tempting for growers to ramp up the weight of the not inexpensive asafoetida with a substitute that looks similar.

There is feverish excitement in the country because of the news that asafoetida is now being grown in Himachal Pradesh, but it seems to me that we’re jumping the gun. First of all, the plant takes 4-5 years to grow. It is only after that, that the roots yield their precious sap. As we have little know-how or even the tools of the trade — the little trowel-like cutters to scrape away the fresh sap — it seems a trifle hasty to begin celebrating saving our foreign exchange on importing asafoetida.

There is terroir to be taken into account: How will our newest trophy grow on our soil, so to speak? Will it be a repetition of the Iran-Afghanistan crops, where the Iranian hing is lighter and has more citrus notes than the feral Afghanistan crop? Even within Afghanistan, Kandhari asafoetida is the most highly prized while the Herati crop is considered a very distant second quality, even below the Iranian variety that is only used in spice mixes in India, and seldom sold on its own. Kandahar and Herat have mountains near them where the precious crop is grown; it is the nearest mandi that gives the crop its name. Our Himachal crop just might turn out to be a damp squib because of factors that nobody has anticipated. The final product might just turn out to have a markedly different flavour from its Afghani counterpart, and may not be accepted by the world’s largest market.

Even more than that, it is, in the opinion of Sanjay Bhatia of Chetan Das Lachhman Das, one of the few importers of asafoetida into India, entirely premature to celebrate the sowing of seeds of a particular spice in the country. “It takes four to five years for the plants to grow and mature enough to release its precious sap. Also, this is merely a government initiative — one of many. The hype is entirely uncalled for.” According to Bhatia, who is one of only 22 asafoetida importers in the entire country – that is how small the world-wide crop is — we should wait to erupt with joy if the plants have taken root and are growing successfully, and when the yield is copious. One kg per plant per annum is considered the norm. Much less than that and it makes it too labour intensive for the grower, as the crop grows at high altitudes, far away from human habitation and collecting the sap (asafoetida) is nowhere as easy as harvesting, say, rice or barley!

Bhatia points out that the key will be the flavour of the Himachal crop, a few years from now. That will be the time to celebrate, if our crop can stand up to the best of the Kandahar yield, considered by all in the trade as the gold standard of this particular spice. Terroir is the leading factor for the flavour of any agricultural product and the flavour profile of the country’s first asafoetida crop will be keenly awaited. There is many a slip twixt cup and lip: a too-weak flavour will not be accepted by the world’s largest market for this particular spice. Flowery or citrusy notes will not be acceptable by the Indian market either, and then it will be back to Afghanistan for their crop.

Before that day, around five years down the line, let us look at a few facts:

• India does not grow asafoetida, but processes it.

• By processing is meant making it suitable as a cooking ingredient.

• One processes asafoetida by stabilising a resin that feels like plasticine but will give you a headache with its smell.

• Some towns across the country have gained fame in processing the spice by adding flour to it. Hathras in Uttar Pradesh is just one example.

• Dealers keep several ‘grades’ of the spice, which means various percentages of flour have been added to the base resin to sober it down.

• In the north of the country, wheat flour is the stabilising agent; in the south, rice flour is used.

• Celiacs and those with gluten intolerance can use brands such as LG whose largest market is in the South, and which are thus stabilised with rice flour.

Shradh cooking (following the death of a person) has the strictest rules; only ingredients that are indigenous (and date back to ancient times) may be used. Asafoetida is prohibited!

• Asafoetida is used by almost all vegetarian communities. Kashmiri Pandits use it too, in place of onions and garlic, but it is thought to impart umami to the cuisine.

Marryam H Reshii has been writing on food and lifestyle for the last 30 years. Follow her work on her website, and on Twitter.

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