The Devil’s Dung is the Food of the Gods?

In Greek mythology, ambrosia was considered the food of the Olympian gods, and it was thought to bring long life and immortality to anyone who consumed it. It was often linked to nectar, the drink of the Gods. However, as the Greek Gods were mythic, so was their food / drink. Nothing edible called ambrosia is found today. But, the Food of the Gods can be found and it happens to be the Devil’s Dung.

Eww! Right? Not actually. Asafoetida or Hing (to us desis) happens to enjoy these contradictory titles in different parts of the world. In Europe (German Teufelsdreck, French merde du diable, Czech čertovo lejno, Swedish dyvelsträck and Turkish şeytan tersi) Asafoetida translates to the Devil’s Dung, while in India and neighbouring countries, may be because of its medicinal qualities, it is referred to as the Food of the Gods.


I, kind of, see the Europeans’ point.

Asafoetida  is the dried latex exuded from the root of several species of Ferula, a perennial herb. Asafoetida literally means smelling resin.

Asafoetida apart from being a level one spelling-bee word, is today an important spice in the Indian Cuisine. It is used in dals, vegetables, snacks, pickles and chutneys.  But its isn’t native to India and we have to be thankful to Alexander, the great to have found it and pave the way for its arrival in a place where it is rightfully accepted, respected and not given deplorable titles. Alexander after returning from a trip to ancient Persia, thought he had found a plant (Asafoetida) almost identical to the famed but extinct Silphium of Cyrene in North Africa, though it was considered less tasty. In The Book of Spice, author John O’Connell describes that Mughals from the Middle East first brought Asafoetida to India in the 16th century.

In India, it is mostly cultivated in the northern and north-eastern hilly states. However, Nepal also exports a bulk to India and individual Nepalis can be seen on Indian Roads (at least in Bengal, I’ve seen) selling lumps of Hing directly to households. However, generally it is sold in a powdered form, sometime mixed with rice flour.

Asafoetida / Hing is believed to have great qualities both in actual medicine and in folklore. It is believed to help with digestion and can ward off flatulence. It is also believed to help with everything from kidney stones to bronchitis. In Afghanistan, it is thought to cure whooping cough and ulcers and in Egypt, it is considered a diuretic. But the Jamaicans are really impressed by its smell and believe that it can ward off evil spirits.

It looks brown, lumpy and smells, so Devil’s Dung does seem a rather appropriate nomenclature. However, oriental wisdom trumps western understanding again and as every glittering thing is not gold, every brown, lumpy, smelly thing is not shit. It could be Asafoetida!

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