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A Botanist's Quest To Help India Grow Its Most Popular Herb


It is often said of sausages that you wouldn't want to see them being made. In the case of Indian cuisine, you might not want to be with a chef cooking up dals and curries. These dishes usually feature a spice called hing, also known as devil's dung (laughter) because of its - well, enjoy your cornflakes.

Any event, Indians consume more hing than any other nation, all of it imported. And now a patriotic botanist is aiming to change that, as NPR's producer Sushmita Pathak reports.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: I'm in my kitchen. I'm making some lentils or dal today. I have oil heating in a saucepan with some mustard seeds. And now it's time to bring out the hing. It's a yellowish, coarsely ground powder. It's quite pungent - very, very strong. I'm just going to add a tiny bit. And in about five minutes, my whole apartment is going to be smelling heavenly.

When it's tempered in oil or clarified butter, hing can transform an otherwise bland dish. But when it's raw, it has a strong sulfur smell. Food writer Marryam H Reshii says hing is her favorite spice, but even she can't be in a hing warehouse for long.

MARRYAM H RESHII: Smell is so strong that your throat will begin to get singed and your nose and eyes will begin to water.

PATHAK: In fact, the English name for hing is asafoetida. It comes from the Latin word for fetid. But the spice has pride of place in almost every Indian kitchen. Reshii says asafoetida is a wonderful substitute for onions and garlic, which some Indians avoid for religious reasons. India eats hundreds of tons of asafoetida each year, but all of it is imported.

SANJAY KUMAR: And we were surprised, you know? India consumes so much of asafoetida and we do not grow it.

PATHAK: Botanist Sanjay Kumar is on a quest to grow asafoetida in India. The spice comes from the dried sap of a plant that grows in the wild in the cold deserts of Afghanistan and Iran. It doesn't stand a chance in India's climate, which is mostly hot and humid, except in the remote Himalayan valleys around where Kumar works.

KUMAR: We said, hey, man, this is such a fantastic location.

PATHAK: So Kumar set out to procure asafoetida seeds. He wrote hundreds of letters to experts in Iran and Afghanistan. Then he had to get approval from the Indian government to bring the seeds into India.

KUMAR: Once we got the seeds, we realized that only 1 out of 100 seeds germinated.

PATHAK: Kumar and his team experimented for months to get the seeds to germinate. They grew them in labs first. And then finally, on a sunny day in October, Kumar planted the first ever asafoetida plant in Indian soil in a tiny village nestled in the Himalayas. The video from that day shows villagers clapping as Kumar waters the sapling.


PATHAK: Kumar tells NPR, seeing the plant for the first time was an experience in itself.

KUMAR: And this plant looks so beautiful, I can tell you that (laughter).

PATHAK: It looks a little like a carrot top. It can grow up to five feet. Kumar is confident that in a few years this Himalayan valley will be filled with asafoetida plants and Indians will be able to cook with hing grown in their own country. But Reshii, the food writer, wonders if it will taste the same.

RESHII: Just popping it into the soil I'm not sure whether we'll be able to celebrate because if the terroir is not suitable, then the hing will be differently flavored.

PATHAK: But Indians might embrace that different flavor as a point of national pride. The proof will be in the dal. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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