The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

Image: Allison Stockman

Several years ago, while working in India, I learned about asafoetida when I contracted a case of chlamydia. In my eyes. I went to sleep on my mat one Friday evening under a mosquito net like usual, noting a slight ache under my lids. I thought it was too much exposure to the intense Uttarakhand high-mountain sun. When I woke up in the morning, my eyes were crusted shut, and a thick yellow goo the color of egg yolks was leaking out of my eyeballs, which were webbed and pink with bloodshot. Convinced it was some kind of river blindness or hemorrhagic fever, I fumbled my way, half blind, to a clinic where I had heard there was an American doctor, trained in Tropical Medicine at Tulane. He would hopefully be able to diagnose and dose me with the right drug before I lost my vision, or needed a complete enucleation to contain whatever demon force seemed to be devouring my eyes.

Normally I wasn’t such an alarmist, but after six months, and several water-borne illnesses, my mind and powers of reason had taken as much of a hit as my wasted body. The doctor took one look at me, did a swab test, and told me it was most likely chlamydia. At the time, I was Mormon, and a virgin. This diagnosis came as a total shock; I had contracted what I thought was my first venereal disease, without ever having sex. I started crying. I really didn’t understand how life could be so unfair to me—the most sexually frustrated unmarried LDS woman I knew. I had followed all the rules! No fingering, no blow jobs, no hand jobs, no going-down shenanigans of any kind. And now this?? He explained that chlamydia was actually an airborne disease, commonly contracted in the dry, dusty hills of the Dehradun District where I was living and working. He wrapped some sheer gauze around my eyes to keep the pus from running down my cheeks and sent me off in tears, with a prescription for the druggist.

I didn’t make it.  My depth perception shot from the bandages, goop, and crying, I tripped over a chain that had been strung knee height across the road, for no reason I could discern. I fell with a smack, flat on my face, cutting my chin open, and losing my prescription to a strong wind in the kerfuffle. It was the last straw. Here I was living like a nun, with an STD eating away at my eyes, my prescription lost, and 8,000 miles from the only way I knew how to take care of myself when things got this bad: hunkered down in my bed with TV and Häagen-Dazs. And now I had literally been cut down at the knees.

A bystander saw me, and fetched someone at the boarding house where I was staying to collect their guest. My hosts sent a messenger to the doctor for a new prescription, but his clinic was closed until Monday. Desperate, I asked the elderly woman who ran the establishment, “Is there anything you can do for me, anything I can take, that will help?” She brought back a grey hunk of something that smelled like ass, with a consistency somewhere between sand and chalk. Ignoring my weak protests, she dissolved the hunk-of-butt or whatever it was in hot water, soaked the gauze, and spread the steaming strips over my eyes.

“What is this stuff?” I groaned. “Hing” she said, “but English say asafoetida” stressing the fourth syllable, smiling and humming a little as she dressed my eyes. “Ass-a-fuh what?” I asked. I spent the next three days with my hair, face, and bedding smelling worse than a hot car in which a freshly pooped-in diaper has been roasting all afternoon. I naively and ethnocentrically thought my host was trying to torture me with some ayurvedic mind-trick; distracting me with a different source of misery so that I’d forget my physical suffering. I recovered in spite of the asafoetida (I thought at the time) and thanks to the antibiotics which eventually arrived.

Back at home, I mostly forgot about the noxious substance until years later when I became a single mother with three young boys to feed, and began to cook a fuck-ton of beans. The first time I saw asafoetida in a Deborah Madison cookbook as a way to temper the gas-inducing property of legumes, I laughed out loud. How could something that so completely smelled like the worst open sewer in India keep my boys from emitting stinking bean farts?!

After doing some research, I learned that asafoetida (a late Middle English word derived from the Persian azā or ‘mastic’ and foetida ‘fetid’) is pretty much a wonder herb-drug. Asafoetida’s nicknames epitomize its polarized properties: ‘Food of the Gods’ and ‘The Devil’s Dung’.  A latex gum extracted from the perennial herb Ferula, the herb (also known as hing), is purported to have carminative (anti-gas), antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, antispasmodic, expectorant, sedative, and diuretic properties. It ostensibly cures everything from impotence to bug bites. I’ve used it for years now in my bean recipes, but felt compelled to perform some empirical research for this story regarding claims of emmenagogic (menstrual) and aphrodisiac and properties.

To relieve period symptoms this month I tried the following recipe:

Mix thoroughly, in a cup of buttermilk, and dose 2 – 3 times daily for one month:

  • Pinch of asafoetida
  • ½ t fenugreek powder
  • Salt to taste

Sniffing the maple-y (thanks to fenugreek), dung-infused, buttermilk scent made me cringe before I downed it. If I hadn’t mixed it myself, I would have sworn this smoothie was made from undercooked and half eaten waffles, dog shit, and pickle juice. It tasted terrible. It did nothing to stop my cramps and bloating, but I bet if I had a tapeworm (asafoetida is also purported to be a vermifuge), it would have raced out of my anus faster than a bad case of food poisoning.

My experiment with the sex-enhancing qualities of asafoetida is in process; I can’t tell if a nightcap or a bedtime bath infused with asafoetida (as The Times of India and a plethora of other legit and dubious sources suggest) is going to spice things up in the bedroom, or make my boyfriend wonder if I ate a cat turd. This frustrated-virgin-no-more can’t wait to find out.