The Aftertaste of Asafetida : By Chitra Gopalakrishnan

The covid-19 has taken away the ability to smell and taste from many. As it has their connection to life. As many wait for the familiar aromas and flavours to come back, my mind is whisked by a forgotten tale. It slips into my consciousness like a card slipped into an envelope.

It happened the year I was brutally homesick.

She brought me asafetida from the market, along with stories of its fragrance, the heat and feel of the Indian plains, its long febrile, desert days, and the nervous excitement of her person, all of which smoothly entered my life within a day with no apparent gaps or spaces between one part and the next.

Sarla was sent to me by an acquaintance in Hanoi when in the very first month of my arrival I slipped spine discs and was ordered to bed in a supine position. Alarmed and alone in an alien city, whose cartography and culture while appealing was unfamiliar, I reached out for help. The fact is I could not even pronounce the name of my locality Tho Ngoc Van.

A friend’s friend said as a relocating Indian family could not take their maid to their new posting in Cambodia due to visa restrictions. I could hire her. I was told her papers were valid and she keen to stay. 

After a phone conversation where we discussed duties and salaries, she said she would come over. I discovered she was from my state.

The potent, earthy smell of asafetida breathed her arrival. 

Asafetida means “stinking resin” both in Farsi and Latin and it is easy to see why this greyish-black spice evokes reactions that are polemic both in its solid or powdered form. Yet history shows that this spice has survived centuries across culture and embedded itself irrevocably in regional cuisines where many cooks will simply not cook without asafetida.

As a functional cook, with just about adequate knife skills and inept at routine cooking, I was ambivalent and illiberal in the use of this coarse powder in my cooking, its odor of rotting eggs a major reason for the let-go. And to be honest, as my cooking was Indian-ish not typically Indian and took inordinate and unkind licenses with traditional recipes, I was not keenly invested in many of the spices integral to Indian cooking.

Noticing my dismay, my strong olfactory rejoinder, Sarla said, almost by way of introduction of her abilities, “A small pinch of this spice will supercharge your taste buds and take you to the aromas of where you come from. I guarantee you that after your first meal you will give your taste buds over to it, you will, its flavor will come alive inside of you.”

I must admit I was indeed a tad homesick, the damp, cold of Vietnam not helping my spirits or my condition. And the fuzzy, white mold on my furniture and clothes was moistening my frame of mind as my confidence in managing alone. So this spice that is derived from a plant related to the carrot and fennel families and has a definite warm character, a sizzle, a double fire may help, I reasoned.

“I have managed to find this pot of gold, my stash of high-quality asafetida” Sarla said, triumphantly extracting and waving a bile-black bottle from her voluminous bag with picture of a ferocious goddess, spear, trident and axe, “after three years of intense aisle search within Indian stores in the city.” It looked sinister. As much as she looked like a deity of a secret spice club. 

Somehow she brought the words of Steve Maraboli, in his ‘Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience’ to mind. “There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection.” 

And without giving me a chance to speak, “Rest,” she ordered, “I make you something to eat.” I silently worried about asafetida being mainstreamed into my food.

An oniony smell soon permeated the house and then there was an unmistakable smell of sizzling asafetida that began to gather intensity and space within and beyond the house. With a scrunched nose, I now fretted about the aftereffects of the leak on my neighbours. The tension in my throat was audible. 

Should I choose pleasure over practicality? Will they complain? Will they come up with the usual jibes of both of us being ‘curry girls’? After all, in the month I had been there, I was nauseated by the vapors of boiled pork and I did wonder how much longer I could tolerate the fetid odor.

Even as the spice fumes set fire to my nasal passages, my ears were almost deafened by the clatter of heavy pots and pans and Sarla’s high-pitched tuneless singing. This time I resigned myself to an inner world of outlandish noises.

Within the span of an hour, she stomped up to my room laden with a bowl of lentils cooked with drumsticks, an inviting potato curry with a liberal sprinkling of whole, raw coriander seeds and coriander leaves, a plate of steaming rice and a salad of minutely-cut cucumber, tomatoes, carrots and chilies with a dash of lime for a bit of tongue-curling tartness and with the seasoning of asafetida and mustard seeds in oil.

The sight and smells took me back home, to the sun-glazed plains of Uttar Pradesh, its shaded mango groves, to my mother’s delicacies, to memories of forgotten flavors and to my mother’s cooing lullabies.

The taste of each dish was divine. “I have used asafetida in each one of the dishes, except the rice,” she confided. I salute its signature in each dish.

“To bring out its ideal level of bite, its elementary taste and to temper its bitterness, there is a need to cook it directly in the pan with the oil. Adding it to the vegetables being cooked or sprinkling it as garnish to a finished dish are rookie mistakes,” she informed me with disdain.

I did not know any of this and I was learning about Indian cooking in a land that felt a contiguous extension of my country with a next-door feel to it but in reality was not.

“The only concession you can make is to add it to tempered spices like cumin, red chilies and mustard, fennel, fenugreek and coriander seeds, let it dissolve over them for thirty seconds to absorb the mixture’s insistent bitterness before you add vegetables, lentils or meat. That is the only way to enjoy its punch, its zest, its steaminess,” she said in a relentless rush.

In the next three years together, Sarla and I wafted together through our stay in Vietnam, comfortable with the naturalness and ease of our friendship and with the pungent, full-bodied fumes of asafetida. 

I was no longer the kitchen dunce and my cooking prowess at an all-time high. We both even managed to infuse a love of this stinky resin among the Vietnamese, no small victory as they are spice averse. In the extreme.

If Vietnam opened me up to new horizons, new people, new ideas, Sarla opened up a new world within, of bonding, of friendship, of lifelong trust. The aftertaste of asafetida has indeed stretched over a long period!

Now we both are back in India. I see ourselves growing old and giggling over our tea and a dish that explodes with the smell of asafetida.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism. As a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communicator for 30 years, she enjoys this career of trying to figure out issues of social development and its impact – or the lack of it – on people. As a creative writer, she exploits all genres and media with a palpable spark to cover narratives of human experience, each avenue a gateway and not a cul de sac. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Platform, Literary Yard, Spillwords, MeFirst Magazine, Runcible Spoon, Reedsy, Cafe Lit, Terror House, eShe, Impspired, Twist and Twain, Literati, Fleas on the Dog, Velvet Illusion, and The Sky Island Journal.