Hing: The Umami Ingredient of India is Finally Homegrown

Nov 19, 2020 | CULTURE, India, NEWS, TASTE

Indian Spices – ©Spurekar

Each country has a staple ingredient that is widely present in its local cuisine. For India, it’s Hing, also known as Asafoetida, But despite its common use, the plant isn’t grown locally in any part of the country. Finally, scientists have changed that.

Going to an Indian restaurant is a wonderful experience every single time. As you enter the door, you are immediately hit with a wasp of delightful smell you can’t explain. And as you enjoy the food, you taste so many unique flavors that you just can’t put a finger on.

It turns out, it’s not magic. It’s Hing – India’s secret to good food. But despite its common use in India, this ingredient is not obtained locally. In fact, it’s emergence in India was due to a case of mistaken identity. 

Hing’s Emergence in India

In the 4th century BCE, the army of Alexander the Great carried the plant Ferula Asafetida or Hing to India. The men thought the plant was a silphium, another aromatic which was used to tenderize meat. The army came across Hing while crossing the Hindu Kush mountains, now Iran and Afghanistan, on their way to India. 

The unique cradle of this unmistakable spice makes it even more special. Now, Hing has become an integral part of Indian cuisine, especially for Jains and Hindus who are not allowed to eat garlic and onion due to certain dietary restrictions. 

For them, only Hing’s pungency can make up for the absence of the two more common ingredients. The strong and bitter odor of Hing makes it so unique that it’s impossible to get it from other spices. Its name is even derived from its scent. Asafoetida means “fetid gum” in Latin. 

Raw hing is a grey-white sticky resin that is collected from the plant roots. It is dried and then mixed with flour or wheat before it is turned into a spice. Some wholesalers also sell Hing in the form of powder, blocks, and coarse granules.

The Unexpected History of Hing in Other Countries

For many Westerners, the taste and odor of Hing may come as a shock. Food writers even describe its flavor as “startling.” In India, the most popular variety of Hing is called White Kabuli.  

“You can’t put it on your tongue. You will need water immediately because it is bitter and it burns,” said Sanjay Bhatia, a Delhi-based supplier, about the White Kabuli. On the other hand, there is also the less popular Hadda Hing, which is sweeter than the white Kabuli variety. 

Hing is hard to find in dishes outside India. However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was once called by Persians as “food for the gods.” Not only that, the ancient Greeks and Romans used to cook with it and it was even believed to be used alongside silphion, which has now become extinct. 

In many parts of the world, Hing is used as an insecticide. It is also commonly used for its medicinal purposes since it can help with inflammation, digestive issues, asthma, dry cough, bronchitis, blood pressure, and menstrual pain, just to name a few.

The Importance of Hing in India

The use of Hing is so common in India that the country accounts for 40 percent of the Hing consumption in the world. 

Author of The Flavour of Spice Marryam Reshii shared that she uses Hing for her dals. Hing is usually added with cumin seeds, red chilies, and ghee for dal. It is also commonly added in spiced soups and relishes. In the northern part of India, the spice is essential to their rogan josh – a dish with lamb, fennel, red chilies, and dried ginger. Meanwhile, the south uses it for its sambars or lentil stew.

India’s Cultivation of Hing

News of a plant finally being grown locally seldom makes headlines, but this specific case is going to be talked about for years. The feverish joy and excitement of the country are not unfounded. Before this momentous discovery, India used to import more than 1,200 tons of this expensive spice from Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan which amounts to a staggering $100 million annually.

As India begins the cultivation of Hing, their goal is to make the country self-reliant on this wonderful spice. This can finally be achieved thanks to the effort of the scientists from the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology or IHBT. The government at Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh has allotted 300 hectares to cultivate the plant. This area could be expanded even further once the five-year cycle is finished and the people see results.

The first-ever seedlings of Hing were planted last October 15 in the Kwaring village of the valley. This marked a feat in the world of Indian cuisine.

The plants will be grown in a remote region where it is cold. This is essential since Hing needs dry and cold conditions to prosper, therefore making most parts of India unable to farm it. Thus, Ladakh is expected to be the gateway to change the economic condition of the farmers in the region.

The move to push for the cultivation of Hing is part of the government’s thrust to reduce India’s import bill by making the country self-reliant when it comes to medical equipment, defense, and agriculture.

“It will be cultivated in a staggered manner so so that farmers in certain areas would start getting its benefit from fifth years onward before its expansion to more areas in Himachal Pradesh and subsequently in cold desert areas of other Himalayan states/UT,” said CSIR-IHBT direction Sanjay Kumar. 

According to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the major hindrance of farmers before when planting Hing was the lack of plants in the area. Thankfully, IHTB, one of the major laboratories of CSIR was able to bring in six varieties of the asafoetida seeds from Iran. 

Dr. Ashok Kumar, one of the scientists who worked on germinating the seeds in the lab, said that they are confident it will work. He also added that they initially planted 800 saplings because only two are expected to sprout for every 100 seeds since the plant tends to become dormant especially in harsh conditions.

“It’ll cost farmers nearly Rs 3 lakh per hectares over the next five years and give them a net return of minimum Rs 10 lakh from fifth year onwards. We will in collaboration with state governments provide support to farmers with finance and technical know-how. It’ll be a gamechanger for farmers in the cold desert region of the country,” shared Kumar.

Will it be Successful?

The people are setting realistic expectations with this project. As expected, it’s going to take quite a while before this project can fully meet India’s demand for Hing. 

“How do you take a wild plant and dump it somewhere else and cross your fingers that it will give you the same aroma?” Reshii asks. 

“No Indian will cook with it. I certainly would not make my dal with Indian hing,” she boldly added.” But as with other things, only time can tell what the Indian hing can bring to the table, literally. 

This wonder ingredient showcased one of the most interesting things about history – when people, whether it’s the Africans, Arabs, Greeks, or Persians, moved around, they took food with them, and when they go to a place and leave, they also take local food with them. Considering this, it’s safe to say that food has been and always will be the most important resource of humans. 

Over the centuries, Hing moved its ways from Iran and Afghanistan to India and of course, your favorite local Indian restaurant. Hing is now part of Indian culture – there’s no question about that. But now that it can be planted on the country’s soil, it can finally be called inherently Indian.