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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Heeng Plant or Assafoetida (Ferula assafoetida)

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Ferula assafoetida is the plant from which Hing is derived. Assafoetida is a species of Ferula which is reportedly native to Persia or Iran. Hing is a resin like gum which comes from the dried sap extracted from the stem and roots of Ferula assafoetida plant. When fresh, the resin is grayish white but becomes dark amber coloured when dried.

The Plant

The plant Ferula assafoetida is perennial, herbaceous, monoecious, plant belonging to the family Umbelliferae. It grows up to a height of about 1-4 meters. Leaves are tri-pinnate and grow up to 3o-40cm in circular fashion around the stem. Leaves have wide sheahing petioles. Flowering stems are hollow, 2.-3 meter high and 10cm in thickness.The cortex of stem contains a number of schizogenous ducts that contain the resin-gum. Flowers are pale or greenish yellow in colour. These are produced in large compound Umbels. Fruits are oval, flat, thin and reddish brown in colour. These contain a milky juice. Roots of the plant are thick, massive and pulpy. The resin extracted from roots remains similar to that of the stem. The whole plant has a distinctive fetid smell.

The name Ferula has been derived from Latin Ferula which means “rod”. It’s English and scientific name assafoetida has been derived from the Persian word “asa” which means resin. It is a genus comprising about 170 species of flowering plants in the family Umbelliferae or Apiaceae. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region, east to Central Asia.



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Different names
The plant Ferula assafoetida has pungent odour and it is due to its odour that it is called by many unpleasant names. In French it has many names and out of those names merde du diable or devil’s shit is very unpleasant one. In some English dialects too it is called as devil’s dung. In German it is called as Teufelsdreck, in Swedish it is called as Dyvelstrack, in Turkish it is known as Seytantersi.It is known as Heeng in many Indo-Aryan languages. In some Indian languages like in Telugu it is known as inguva, in Kannad ingu, in Tamil perungaayam, and in Malayalam it is known as kaayam.

Historical Account

Assafoetid resin has been famous in every classical kitchen since long. It emerged into Europe from a conquering expedition of Alexander the Great, who after returning from a trip to North Eastern Persia (modern Afghanistan), thought that they had found a plant almost identical to the famed silphium of Cyrene in North Africa. In the First Century, Dioscorides wrote that, “the cyrene kind, even if one just tastes it, at once arouses a humour through out the body and has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed in the breath, or only a little, but the Median(Iranian) is weaker in power and has a nastier smell.” Andrew Dalby(2000) writes- … never the less, “it could be substituted for silphium in cooking, which was fortunate, because a few decades after Dioscorides time, the true silphium of Cyrene went extinct, and Assafoetida gained in popularity, by physician as well as by cooks.’ Andrew (2000) has reported that after the fall of Roman Empire, until the 16th century, assafoetida was rare in Europe, and if ever encountered, it was viewed as a medicine. Garcia, an European guest once commented that,”… nothing is more widely used in every part of India, both in medicine and cookery. All the Hindus who can afford it buy it to add to their food. The rich Brahmins, and all the Hindus who are vegetarians, eat a lot of it. They add it to their vegetables and herbs and first rubbing the cooking pot with it: it is seasoning, sauce, and condiment in every dish they eat.”

Chemical constituents of assafoetida

The plant extract of a typical assafoetida contains about 40 to 64 percent of resin, 25 percent endogenous gum, 10 to 17 percent volatile oil, and 1.5 to 10 percent ass. The resin found in this plant has been reported to contain asareninotannols –A, and B, Ferulic acid, umbelliferone and four unidentified compounds. The resin contained in the plant has strong aroma. When untreated, the aroma is so strong that the resin or Heeng must be stored in air tight containers; otherwise the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby. After heating it becomes mild and pleasant.

Traditional medicinal and other applications of assafoetida

Assafoetida has been in traditional medicinal and ethnoherbological use since the time immemorial. It has been reported to reduce the growth of indigenous microflora in the gut region of our bodies reducing flatulence (Garg, Banerjea, Verma and Abraham 19890).It is often added to lentil or aubergine dishes in small quantities.

In Thailand the resin of the plant is used to aid babies’ digestion and is smeared on the child’s stomach in an alcohol tincture known as Mahahing.It has been reported that assafoetida helps in cases of asthma and bronchitis.It is a folk traditional remedy for colds of children. It is mixed into a pungent smelling paste, kept in a smallest bag and garlanded around the neck of a child in cases of colds.

Assafoetida is broadly applied in traditional medicine as an antimicrobial, with well documented uses for treating chronic bronchitis and whooping cough, as well as in reducing flatulence. It has also been reported that the resin has contraceptive or abortifacient property. The assafoetida oleo-gum resin has been reported to have anti-epileptic properties in classical Unani and ethnobotanical literature. Ayurveda considers it to be one of the best spices for balancing the vata dosha.

In Jammu region of India, assafoetida is used as a medicine for flatulence and constipation. A number of ayurvedic medicines for treating indigestion and flatulence have been prepared by using resin of Ferula plant.

The resin of Ferula plant is used as scent baits for catfish and pike. According to John C. Dual (1936) the odour of assafoetida attracts wolves along the Texas- Mexico border. In Jamaica, the resin is traditionally applied to a baby in order to protect from evil spirits. In African-American Hoodoo tradition the resin is used in magic spells. In ceremonial magic especially from The Key of Solomon the King, it is used to protect the magus from daemonic forces and to evoke the same and to bind them.


References

S.K.Garg, A.C.Banerjea, J.Verma, and M.J. Abraham(1989); Effect of various treatments of pulses on in-vitro gas production by selected intestinal clostridia. Journal of food science, Volume 45, Issue 6,p1601-1602.

Srinivasan,K(2005); Role of spices beyond food flavouring: Naturaceuticals with Multiple Health Effects, Food Reviews International,21:2,167-188

Riddle, John M. 1992.Conceptionand abortion from the ancient world to the renaissance. Harvard University Press p.28 and reference therein.

Hemla Aggarwal and Nidhi Kotwal.2009. Foods used as ethno-medicine in Jammu. Ethno-med,3(I): 65-68

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