Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sensory Training: Making Friends with Devil's Dung

Opening a container of asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) will clear out a room. The ground gum oleoresin, which is used as a spice, has a nose wrinkling smell that resembles mercaptan, the rotten cabbage-like odorant used to scent natural gas. Mercaptan and asafoetida contain sulfur compounds associated with decomposition, so why would anyone want to make friends with a spice that's earned the nickname "Devil's Dung"?

Asafoetida is an alliaceous substitute for onions and garlic in Jain cooking. It's also used as an umami flavor enhancer in Indian cuisine and acts as an antiflatulent, which is ironic when one considers how asafoetida smells before it mellows during the cooking process. 

There are aesthetically pleasant things one can study when training their sense of smell, but asafoetida is one of the best because it's a catalyst for discovery when confronting sensory bias. Humans are hardwired to escape dangerous smells, but not all unpleasant smells are dangerous. The challenge in sensory evaluation, inclusive of taste and smell, is the fact that most of us would rather experience something we like and avoid anything we find unpleasant.

When you're going through sensory training you learn to let go of personal preferences and aversions. The goal isn't to become objective because sensory perception is subjective. You learn to become more evaluative in sensory training, which is to say that you assess something for its character—whether you like it or not.

Smelling tincture of asafoetida as it evaporates on a perfume blotter is a revelation. The hellish brimstone odor is transformed as sulfur compounds evaporate and sweet balsamic notes redolent of vanilla emerge in the drydown. The heavenly transformation is striking, counterintuitive and unforgettable. 

Making friends with Devil's Dung (asafoetida) is a catalyst for self-discovery and a great way to conquer sensory bias. It teaches us that something we find unappealing can become a gateway for beauty over time. That's something worth lingering over.

Sulfur compounds aren't found in the non-volatile constituents of asafoetida—they're only present in the essential oil. Once the sulfur evaporates from the oil other constituents such as vanillin and ferulic acid in ester form (the later related to ferulaldehyde found in maple syrup) can be detected. Ferulic acid is also related to isoeugenol (found in clove and other plants) and vanillin (found in vanilla). You don't have to be a chemist to recognize the inter-relational quality in plant volatiles on a molecular level. You can smell it.

To make an asafoetida tincture for smelling combine 1.42 grams (1/4 teaspoon) of asafoetida with 4ml of ethanol (high proof vodka) in a 5ml amber glass vial. Keep the tincture in a cool dark place and allow to age for one month. Shake the tincture daily during maceration.

Asafoetida resin sold in spice shops is ground into a powder with gum arabic and neutral materials such as wheat or rice flour. Turmeric is sometimes added to boost health benefits of asafoetida.

I'll be sharing tincture of asafoetida at The Storytelling Secrets of Optimus Yarnspinner, a Smell & Tell program that takes place tonight at the Ann Arbor District Library (downtown branch), from 6:30-8:45pm. This unique Smell & Tell focuses on an apothecary cabinet of inspirational smells that belongs to Optimus Yarnspinner, a beloved character in the Zamonia series of books by German author Walter Moers.

Spoiler Alert: Yarnspinner uses asafoetida when he's writing horror stories. The German word for asafoetida is stinkasant. Right up there with Devil's Dung.