India might be the largest consumer of asafoetida or hing, but it has never succeeded in growing this spice. For centuries, India has been importing it from Iran and Afghanistan, earlier through the kabuliwallah route, now through more sophisticated import mechanisms.
For the first time now, scientists of the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT), a Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) institute, have developed the agro technology for growing this plant in the remote Lahaul valley of Himachal Pradesh. Lahaul is a high altitude, cold desert.
The seeds were imported from Iran in six batches, and cultured at Lahaul, Ribling and Spiti in fields attached to the laboratories. The asafoetida plant, Ferula assa-foetida, grows in cold and dry conditions and takes around five years for the production of the oleo gum resin in its roots, which is harvested, much like rubber tapping, to obtain the spice. The plant is around six feet in height. The conditions in Lahaul valley seemed ideal to try and cultivate the plant, and scientists are pleased that they have been able to develop the agro technology to adapt it to India.
This year, the Himachal Pradesh state government decided to introduce and cultivate the crop in the fields, to be grown commercially, and signed a memorandum of understanding with IHBT. The institute has been organising capacity building and training programmes for the officials and farmers as it introduces a new cash crop to the region. IHBT director Sanjay Kumar recently presided over a small function in a field at Kwaring village, in Lahaul valley to mark the initiation of this cultivation in India.
Asafoetida, which gets its name from its smell (foetid), is a top condiment in India, which imports 1,200 tonnes of raw asafoetida, worth around USD 100 million, from Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan every year. It is not just used to flavour dishes, from sambhar in the south to kadhi in the north, but is also used as a digestive and in ayurvedic medicine. It is a great aid for treating flatulence, and is known as badian, (gas or wind) in Iran and Afghanistan. For use, the sap is mixed with flour and gum arabic and now is marketed mostly as a powder, though it is also sold as crystals.
There are around 130 species of ferula in the world, but only ferula assa-foetida has the economic importance. India has two varieties of ferula native to the land, Ferula narthex, found in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh valley, and Ferula jaeschkeana, found in Chamba, in Himachal. These, however, do not produce the condiment. The efforts of IHBT are the first in the country to cultivate hing locally. Given the lack of agriculture, especially for cash crops in these desert expanses, if the asafoetida cultivation takes off, it could improve the economy of the region.