Asafoetida. This plant grows wild throughout central Asia. The Kirghiz nomads eat the young shoots and heads in springtime, calling them a great delicacy; they overlook the plant's distinctive stench, which vanishes (thankfully!) after boiling. The Hindus and men of Baluchistan are also fond of asafoetida, and eat it by roasting the stem in the ashes and stewing the greens of the head. When ripe it has the appearance of a cauliflower; the leaves taste like beet-root. Its stem and leaves can be either boiled or roasted, and then eaten with butter or ghee.
As summer progresses, the leaves of the asafoetida fall to the ground and die; what remains is a tall round stem, a foot or more high, branching off at the top in wheel-spokes. Each spoke boasts a head of insignificant flowers.
Then, throughout Afghanistan, asafoedida gatherers come to harvest the plant. They cut it in the Afghani mountains, for sale in the villages; it is a local industry. The Afghani people use it to make landhi: dried meat for winter use, which has been rubbed with salt and hing--wild asafoetida, which smells pungent like strong garlic--and then strung on landhi poles, which are tall poles with crosspieces which stand outside most Afghani mud-houses and serve as winter larders. Having no electricity or freezers, without asafoetida they would not be able to preserve meat.
Asafoetida gum is a different matter. It used to be harvested in great quantities on the edge of the Tekke Turkoman desert (this is in Iraq) and it was gathered in this manner: the stem close to the root, and sometimes the root itself, were cut when the plant began to ripen, and the juice oozed out and hardened. If the stem was not cut, it cracked and the juice (which stank, by the way) exuded from it. In either case, the gum was collected and preserved for sale. The cutting season lasted about eight months, from spring to autumn; a plant could be cut fourteen times yearly. All this was observed by C. E. Stewart, who happened to be traveling through the vicinity at about the year 1875.
The collected gun was shipped to India, and never used by the Persians themselves; indeed those who gathered the gum were wholly ignorant of its uses. When told that the people of India used it to flavor food (in very small quantities, admittedly!) as well as for medicine, they asked Stewart if he had ever tasted such cooking. When he said he had, and thought it rather good, he was looked upon with disgust and horror.
John Macdonald Kinnear, A Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire
Sylvia Matheson, Time Off to Dig (an account of Afghanistan in the sixties)
Lt. Col. C.E. Stewart, The Country of the Tekke Turkomans and the Tejend and Murghab Rivers
Eugene Schuyler, Turkistan
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Last Updated on September 15, 2000 by Sylvia