Monday, October 11, 2010

Silphium Asafoetidaque

Ecce! Hic Spartacurtus est! 
How the asafoetida is packaged
Today I happened to be in an Indian grocery, and found asafoetida powder, an ancient Roman spice. While it is known in Hindi, as "Hing," most of the Western world knows it as "Devil's Dung." Asafoetida is a gum derived from the sap of the roots and stem of the Ferula assafoetida plant, which is closely related to fennel. It has a very pungent aroma, though this awful odor is supposed to dissipate with cooking. It comes in a fine yellow powder. I was told by the shop keeper to keep it in a an air-tight container when I bought it, otherwise its scent will taint the flavor of all the other foods around it. This stuff smells AWFUL. It seriously smells like armpits, or  rotting onions and sulfur. 

Have we found a Roman flavor more detestable than Garum?! I think we have a contender. Can you imagine a spice that smells so strongly that it starts taking over the over foods stored around it!? I think I've found it. Somebody out there must agree with my revulsion to this spice, or it probably wouldn't be called "Devil's Dung."

So the story behind this vile spice is that originally, in Ancient cooking, the Romans had a spice called Silphium, also known as lasarpicium. This herb became terribly popular, not only for cooking, but for medicinal purposes as well. It was imported only from a small region in Cyrenaica, which is now modern Libya. This spice was so valuable that the Roman state treasury hoarded it along with their gold and silver. Pliny explains what happened to it:

Pliny the Younger
"For many years now it has not been seen in Libya: the agents who lease grazing land, scenting higher profits, have allowed sheep to overgraze the silphium lands. The single stem found within living memory was sent to the Emperor Nero. If an animal should ever come upon a promising shoot, the sign will be that a sheep after eating it rapidly goes to sleep, whereas a goat sneezes rather loudly. For a long time now, however, the only silphium brought to us in Rome has been that originating in Iran and Armenia, which is plentiful enough, but not nearly as good as Cyrenaic."

Ferula assafoetida
So Nero ate the very last sprig of silphium! Academia has found it difficult to believe that the silphium of Libya could really have become extinct from overgrazing. In Cyrenaic, it  was so important for the economy that its image was stamped on all coins of the region from the 6th century BC. This was undoubtedly effective as a form of publicity, since money enjoyed such wide circulation and its imagery was consequently a powerful message. Thus the cultivation of silphium was a measure of the wealth of Cyrenaic and its territory. In more recent history, there are sometimes reports of its rediscovery, but the plants found never have the capacity to make goats sneeze like the original. Thanks Nero. 

Cerenaic coin with silphium
However, the substitute that was used from Pliny's time onwards still exists as asafoetida, which is the 'silphium' imported from Central Asia that he speaks of. So, as strong as this stuff smells, and it smells really, really strongly, this is a shadow of the original strength so loved by the Romans. 

The Romans not only used this spice to flavor vegetables, but despite its pungent aroma, asafoetida was known to alleviate stomach ailments, cold symptoms, anxiety issues, chronic fatigue, yeast infections, and painful gas and flatulence. Romans believed that regular dose of asafoetida before and during early pregnancy can help lessen the risk of miscarriage. I know that from the smell of it, it could probably lessen the chances of pregnancy in the first place, as nobody would want to go near you.

As a source of pungent flavor, asofoetida is still used widely today in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, the pungency of the herbal aroma is far more persistent than that of the commonly used garlic, and Worcestershire sauce contains asafoetida as one of its main ingredients.

In the name of history, we will try out this spice, and get to the bottom of its flavors, and unlock the mysteries contained therein. I will be looking for a recipe that exhibits this wildly awful smelling spice, and will try it out. Of course, you will read all about it here, in Julius and Julia. 

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