If you’re new to Indian cooking, chances are you have yet to use asafoetida – an ingredient integral in the South. Brace yourself as your initial encounter will be jarring. Remember the dust cloud that encircled Charlie Brown’s friend Pig Pen? Well, times that by two and it will seem like a bouquet of roses next to this oh-so-stinky spice. Not convinced? Asafoetida’s sulfuric stench is so strong that it’s also called devil’s dung. Really, it’s that stinky!
So, why, you may ask would anyone consume such an off-putting ingredient? For several surprisingly sensible reasons! First, asafoetida goes from acrid to full-flavored when cooked, and takes on the unique flavor of onions, garlic, and perfectly popped popcorn. Some even pick up the notes of truffles. It also blends well with other spices, magically rounding them out. Sambar (vegetable stew), for example, wouldn’t be sambar without the unifying spice.