Stinky Spice

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Nick Roumel

A few months back I bought two Indian cookbooks. For me, these are not just new recipes, but different techniques altogether. Recently I tried my hand at spicy baby eggplant, with a side of spinach bread. I had to read each recipe several times just to have the foggiest notion of what I was supposed to do. But my biggest trepidation was the call for asafetida, the “stinky spice.”

It is no coincidence that the word “fetid” is in its name. Julie Sahni writes in “Classic Indian Cooking,” “Asafetida [sometimes called “hing”] is a combination of various dried gum resins obtained from the roots of certain Iranian and Indian plants … Asafetida lump … is virtually odorless until it is powdered, when it releases its strong characteristic smell. … The powerful smell of powdered asafetida takes over the entire kitchen and the aroma lingers on.”

She is too diplomatic. This stuff is foul. I opened the container outside by the garbage can, shook out my 1/8 teaspoon, and quickly sealed it. I’m quite certain this will keep the raccoons at bay for at least a few weeks.

Asafetida has other uses as well, historically being worn in a bag around the neck to ward off various maladies. Jamaicans would apply a little around a certain – let’s just say “opening” – in their babies to prevent evil spirits from entering there.

So why use the “Stinky Spice?” Sahni continues, “Surprisingly, this strong and overly pungent ingredient, when added to hot oil and fried for five seconds, undergoes a mysterious change: it perfumes the fat with a subtle oniony aroma.” It also serves as a substitute for onions in certain dishes prepared by Brahmins and Jains, whose “strict vegetarian diet forbids them to use onions – a flavoring considered too strong and smelly.”

Now you know why “Stinky Spice” was kicked out of the Spice Girls! But it is true, that once I dashed the powder into the hot oil, there was an enticing cooking aroma. And there is no doubt that it helped lend a pleasantly exotic taste to the spicy eggplant.

I just want to know how and why someone persisted to the point where they eventually discovered this stuff could make food taste better. My hat is off to this brave culinary pioneer.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. 
 

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