In this day and age, we’d hope that spice adulteration was no more. But sadly, this is not the case. With food prices rocketing higher every year, and some ingredients’s prices rising faster than others, the temptation to adulterate is often too strong. Most often in order to keep costs down, and ultimately prices on the supermarket shelves the same each year, spices are often diluted beyond belief.
For example, see the graph below on the average price of Pepper, taken from The IPC. Prices have easily doubled in the last 5 years, but are you paying twice as much for your pepper compared to back in 2008? Chances are you’re not paying anywhere near that.
Other spices are mixed and compounded for flavour reasons. Often it’s because they aren’t stable, or simply too harsh in their pure form. Certain spices, such as True Cinnamon, don’t suit people’s taste buds as much as their commonly substituted alternative, Cassia. One of these spices in Asafoetida. Asafoetida, also commonly known as “Hing” or jokingly as Devil’s Dung is one of the most notoriously adulterated spices in existence. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve most certainly tasted it. Asafoetida is almost synonymous with Indian vegetarian cuisine. It is the most commonly used spice to add that signature herbal, mustard flavour to curries. It instantly transforms them from being thin and boring, to rich and bursting with flavour, without the need to use meat-based stocks.
However, this spice also carries a deep dark secret. It’s almost never sold pure, and almost always diluted with more ingredients than the packaging lets known. It is usually sold as a block, mixed with gum arabic to hold the spice together, plus wheat flour to make the spice taste better, and less harsh. Usually around 30-40% of the product is Pure Asafoetida, and this is the flavour popular in Indian households.
However, with commercial asafoetida, many manufacturers go overboard with diluting. They mix in all kinds of colours and spices including Turmeric, red clay, chalk, barley, potatoes, and usually more than is even written on the label! Ultimately, the percentage of asafoetida in some of these products ends up at less than 5%. How the overall blend can be called Asafoetida without embarrassment is slightly bizarre. How these unlisted ingredients pass health and trade standards is another matter. To find out more, we suggest reading: Handbook on Spices and Condiments (Cultivation, Processing and Extraction)
For consumers here are some rough, but quick tests to see what percentage of your product is actually Asafoetida. The first test is to place a fraction of it on the flame of a spirit lamp. Pure Asafoetida will burn quickly, and all the impurities will be left behind. Another test is based on Pure Asafoetida dissolving quickly in water. You can dissolve it in water and it should leave a milky white colour behind. The remaining colours are due to diluting substances. Of course, we have more sophisticated methods now, but these aren’t accessible to common consumers.
Photo: Taken by Stumptownpanda