From Silphium to Asafoetida: A Tale of two Ancient spices

South Indian vegetable curries are often garnished with a large pinch of asafoetida (dried and powdered gum resin from a fennel related plant with an acrid taste and strong scent) sautéed in a spoonful of oil or ghee. When asafoetida is added to hot oil, it changes from its strong and powerful smell to an enticing oniony-garlicky aroma. Strict vegetarian diets of India forbid the use onions and garlic, and asafoetida is used in their place for its distinct aroma. It is used in the cooking of various pulses, beans and certain vegetables, certain savory snacks, pickles and chutneys. It is considered a digestive aid and it helps to neutralize flatulence.

The name asafoetida originates from the Persian word aza (mastic resin) and a Latin word foetida meaning stinking. It is also known as devil’s dung because of its strong pungent smell (due to the presence of sulfur compounds). The aromatic resin comes from certain species of the giant fennels, plants of the genus ferula. When the plants are about four or five years old, they develop very thick and fleshy, carrot shaped roots. The resin is collected from these roots just before the plants start flowering in spring or early summer. The milky resinous liquid soon coagulates when exposed to air. The color darkens when it is sun dried into a solid form.

These perennial plants are native to the region between the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Three different species are used in the production of asafoetida, ferula asafoetida, ferula foetida and ferula narthex, each of which shows slight differences in color and properties. Both ferula assafoetida and ferula foetida are native to Iran and Afghanistan and ferula narthex is a native of Afghanistan. Even though most of the world’s production of asafoetida comes from the Middle Eastern regions of Iran and Afghanistan, India is the major consumer of this spice.

It is sold either as lumps or in powdered form. The lump asafoetida is the most common form of pure asafoetida. In making commercially ground asafoetida the resins are combined with small quantities of rice, barley or wheat flour to prevent lumping and to reduce the strong flavor. Processed asafoetida often varies in color and texture because of the difference in additives. It is available as either mustard yellow powder or sandy brown coarse powder.

Asafoetida has remained a part of the Indian spice box for centuries and continues to be used both in cooking and in medicine in India. The ancient Sanskrit text “Kashyapa Samhita”, (circa 200 BC) mentions about the import of asafoetida from Afghanistan. The great Indian epic Mahabharatha (circa 400BC and 300AD) include graphic descriptions of feasts served at picnics. It describes how shoulders and rounds of animals were dressed in ghee, sprinkled with seasalt, black pepper and grilled and garnished with radishes pomegranates, lemons, herbs, asafoetida and ginger. Asafoetida’s use as a tenderizer and preservative for meat was known centuries ago. Iranian cuisine uses it for flavoring meatballs and in Afghanistan it is used in the preparation of dried meat. Although this spice is practically unknown in modern western cuisines, it is used in the United States and Europe in perfumes and commercially prepared flavorings.

The strong smelling and sparingly used asafoetida has an interesting history. Its predecessor silphium (also known as silphion or lasar), the wonderful spice from the region of Cyrene (now in modern Libya) was in great demand in ancient times. Silphium resisted attempts at cultivation and transplantation, which made it one of the major sources of revenue for Cyrene. The plant was valued for its many uses as food source, seasoning for food, and most importantly, as medication. Perfumes were made from its flowers; the stalk was used for food or fodder while the juice and root were used to make a variety of medical potions. Some of the best-known representations of silphium are the stylized images used in ancient coins.

The Greeks believed the plant was a gift from Apollo, because the plant appeared after a heavy rainstorm flooded the area at about the time the city of Cyrene was founded in 7th century B.C. Silphium was first mentioned in one of the Athenian poems from 6th century B.C. as a seasoning and dominant flavor of sauces served at banquets. It was also prescribed as part of several compound drugs in the Hippocratic texts of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In his History of the Plants the Greek scientist Theophrastus wrote that Silphium is a thick root similar to celery. Two kinds of sap are collected from the plant, one from the stem and the other from the root. Exporting it to Athens they put it in jars and mix flour with it and shake it for a long time; and thus treated it remains stable.

However, true silphium became extinct by the end of 1st century A.D. According to geographer Strabo profit taking led to the decline of silphium. Two centuries later Pliny tells the end of the story of silphium in his Natural History. He called it “one of the most precious gifts from nature to man”. In those days the spice was worth its weight in silver and it was used in the treatment of leprosy, to restore hair and as antidote to poison. Potions made from silphium were supposedly among the most effective birth control methods known at the time. According to Pliny, the last single stem of silphium that was found within living memory was sent to Emperor Nero.

Several ingredients that we associate today with Greek and Italian cooking were not available to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Tomatoes did not grow outside the American continent, pasta was yet to be produced and even garlic was significantly less popular. The only solution to bland food they had was the use of spices and herbs. Silphium was in great demand in the classical kitchens of Ancient Rome and Greece.

By the end of first century the name Apicius had become synonymous with greatest Roman writers on cookery. But there were three famous culinary masters who bore the name Apicius in Imperial Rome. The first is believed to have lived in the days of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), the second taught cuisine under Augustus and Tiberius ((27 B.C. – 37 B.C.) and the third Apicius lived during the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.).

Apicius is credited with two cookbooks. The first book De condituris was on sauces. This was later absorbed into De Re Coquinaria, one of the oldest cookbooks found. It is believed that it was compiled around 4th century A.D. Evidently the works of Apicius survived the middle ages in two 9th century manuscripts. Many 15th century scholars who were interested in the subject made several copies of the manuscript and the first printed edition came from Milan in 1498. An edition with English translation was published from London in 1958 – The Art of Cooking by Apicius by Barbara Flower and Elizabeth Rosenbaum.

The basis of Apicius’ famous sauces was the perfect balance between ground spices and crushed herbs. To this he added a second level of flavors, either sweetness or sourness depending on the dish. In more elaborate recipes dried fruits and nuts were also added as a third level of flavors.

Another 5th century Roman cookery book, The Excerpts of Vinidarius, starts with a list of herbs and spices a cook should have. It included saffron, pepper, ginger, laser (asafetida) folium (aromatic leaf), myrtle berries, costmary or costus, cloves, Indian spike, cardamom, spikenard, poppy, rue seed and berries, laurel berries, dill seed, fennel seed, lovage seed, coriander, cumin, anise seed, parsley, caraway, and sesame. The large number of spices used in ancient recipes, reflect a culinary tradition in which a particular flavor was accomplished with the use of a variety of spices. Strangely enough, the list closely resembles spices used in Indian cuisine!

Asafoetida, as a substitute for silphium emerged into prominence during Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia that began in the spring of 334 AD. While crossing the northeastern provinces of the Persian Empire, his soldiers discovered a plant that was almost identical with silphium. Although not quite so good, it made a perfect substitute for silphium in tenderizing hard meat.

Asafoetida was cultivated for both medicinal purposes and for the use as a spice. The Greek called it silphion medikon - Median silphium (silphium from Iran) and the Romans called it silfi. De Meteria Medica, the foremost classical source of botanical terminology, by Greek Physician Dioscorides (circa 40 AD to 90 AD) treated both the Libyan and Median silphium under one heading. It said that the Cyrenaic silphium has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, but the Median and Syrian silphium are weaker and have a nastier smell.

With the renewed interest food history today, many cooking schools and universities are offering courses in ancient cuisines and culinary history. There are web sites and discussion groups on the worldwide web that share information on antique Roman/Greek recipes, ingredients and historical background. And there are purveyors of authentic goods for historical cookery. Cooks who recreate these ancient Roman recipes today use asafoetida when silphium is called for.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN