Asafoetida - Alexander the Great's favored ingredient


Asafoetida (or asafetida) is gum resin obtained from Ferula assafoetida, a perennial plant belonging to the Ferula species of plants that can grow 1 to 1.5m (3.3 to 4.9 feet) in height. The symbolic name of Ferula assafoetida (Ferula – carrier or vehicle, asa – resin, foetidus – fetid) perfectly describes the gum resin obtained from it.
This plant is a part of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, which consists of 3700 species and 434 genera. What makes Apiaceae unique is that it’s the 16th largest family of flowering plants, and they're widely known for their aromatic properties. Ferula assafoetida is native to deserts of Iran and mountain region of Afghanistan where substantial amounts are found. People of Iran and Afghanistan refer to this plant as badian, which translates to that of gas or wind due to its potential to alleviate stomach gas. While it can grow in dry or moist soil, this tall plant isn't a fan of shade.
The gum resin is obtained from the rhizome and root of the plant. After four years, when it's ready to extract asafetida, the stems of Ferula assafoetida are cut down close to the root. Then, the milky juice starts flowing but sets quickly into a solid resinous mass. At the very beginning, asafetida has a translucent and pearly white look, but turns pink and later reddish-brown after spending more time in the fresh air.
The fetid or pungent smell of asafetida is the reason why it’s also referred to as the devils dung. Besides the unpleasant smell, asafoetida also has nauseating taste. The bad taste and smell didn’t stop people from using asafetida for many centuries. In ancient Rome, asafoetida was stored with pine nuts in jars and served as a flavoring for delicate dishes. Persians used the herb and resin as a condiment. It was touted as a favored ingredient by Alexander the Great. Back in the Middle Ages, people wore this pungent resin around their neck, hoping to avoid diseases including fever and cold.
 devil's dung Ferula asafoetida flower
Asafoetida is also widely used in India for both culinary and medicinal purposes, especially in Ayurveda. Uses of asafetida are truly numerous. For instance, the Worcestershire sauce owes its distinctive aroma to this gum resin. The gum resin is also added to some perfumes.
For hundreds of years, people from different cultures have used asafetida to tackle some health problems. In Afghanistan, asafetida was used to address hysteria, whooping cough, and ulcers.* Egyptians consumed hot water extract of ferula root for diuretic and antispasmodic effects.* In Morocco, the gum is chewed for antiepileptic properties and in Malaysia for amenorrhea.* Saudi Arabians have used the gum for asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough.* In Brazil, hot water extract of dried leaf and stem of ferula is consumed as an aphrodisiac.*
Indeed, the potential benefits of asafetida and the plant from which it derives are numerous. Asafoetida is a good source of antioxidants and may promote digestion, help reduce symptoms of IBS, and exhibit antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial effects.* Intake of asafetida could help lower blood pressure, and it may protect brain health and lower blood sugar levels.*
The history of different uses of asafetida speaks of the high potential of this gum resin and ferula plants worth exploring to uncover their mechanisms of action and all benefits they may offer.
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References:

https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Ferula+assa-foetida

https://www.britannica.com/topic/asafetida#ref22109

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3459456/


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