You may have heard the word hing or heeng floating around with regard to Indian food. These are Hindi names for what is known as asafetida in English. It's a spice that is integral in Indian cuisine, giving authentic dishes that distinct flavor that the country's food is so well-known for and boosting the flavor of other spices.
What Is Hing?
Hing or heeng is the Hindi word for asafetida (sometimes spelled asafoetida). It's also been known as the devil's dung and stinking gum, as well as asant, food of the gods, jowani badian, hengu, ingu, kayam, and ting.
It is a dark brown, resin-like substance that is derived from the root of ferula. Ferula is a perennial herb related to celery, parsley, and carrots and looks like a giant fennel plant. It's grown mainly in India but also in Iran and Afghanistan. A gum is extracted from the plant and then processed into a coarsely-textured yellow powder, which is what is known as hing or asafetida.
When raw, hing has a distinctive, sharp, pungent smell that's often likened to boiled eggs or a mix of onions and sulfer. It becomes extremely fragrant when added to hot oil or the clarified butter ghee to temper a dish. It's also common to simply add a pinch directly to a dish. Some say that when cooked it has the scent of leeks.
Hing can be bought at any Indian food store in the form of small lumps or as a powder. In the U.S., you can find it in a powder or mixed with wheat. It is so pungent that the smell will permeate your cupboard and be nearly impossible to remove. For that reason, it's best to store it in air-tight containers, even if it was purchased in plastic.
How to Cook With Hing
When paired with turmeric, hing is commonly found in lentil curries like dal, along with other vegetable dishes. Hing can be used to balance out foods that are too sour, sweet, salty, or spicy. It's also used as an agent in pickling.
In Indian cooking, hing is used largely for its digestive properties. It's added to foods such as curries and beans that are thought to be gaseous or gas-producing in nature to make them easier to digest. According to yogic standards, it is not supposed to be eaten with onion and garlic, which they say can lead to lethargy.
A little is all you need, though, as Hing is a very potent spice. Typically, just a pinch will have a big impact on an entire dish. It should also be added during cooking to reduce its bitterness; don't sprinkle it on top of the finished food.
Hing is not just used in food in India. There, they believe it can aid with kidney stones and bronchitis. In Egypt, it's considered a diuretic, while it's used to help with ulcers and whooping cough in Afghanistan. It has also been used to combat everything from asthma to influenza, as well as a contraceptive.
There are other non-food uses for hing as well. It can be used as a tree killer, fish bait, moth trap, or spirit repellant, depending on the culture.