I can hear my great grandmother giving special instructions to the maid before going off on her numerous bathing and cleansing rituals.  “Sorshe , posto bhalo kore bete raakh, ami chan korei ranna bosiye debo” (Grind the mustard and poppy seeds properly, I will start cooking as soon as I return from my bath). Sometimes, I squeeze my eyes shut just for the pleasure of recapturing the sound of nora (pestle) on the large stone slab known as shil (grinding stone). I am often tempted to bring a miniature one back to my kitchen just to recreate that exact texture of seed pastes so vital to Bengali vegetarian curries. Taste is not just about how the food hits your tongue. There is a whole new science behind how we perceive flavor and develop preferences for different food.  Eating curries infused with poppy seed paste or posto as it is known in my native West Bengal is definitely an acquired taste.  During my childhood, I can distinctly recall a separate cooking arrangement for widows in rural Bengal. An elderly widowed aunt or grandmother would give up their lifelong love of fish and embrace total vegetarianism. Unlike other parts of India, Bengali vegetarian dishes are lightly spiced with cumin, turmeric, five spices or paanch foron, bay leaves or mustard instead of onions or garlic.  The thick and satisfying taste of poppy seed paste was perhaps a pleasant addition to this limited range of flavor enhancers.

One of the pleasures of eating as an adult comes from the sentimental association we have from our memories of youth. After a hard day, I often find myself reaching for things that are comforting to the soul if not particularly helpful to the waistline. For immigrants living away from their native land recreating the taste and smell of home foods is comforting. There is no universally accepted ‘comfort’ food.  A craving for peanut butter and jelly sandwich, normal for the American palate   will be completely alien to the Nigerian immigrant who may be craving a hearty home cooked fufu. The desire to satisfy our taste buds and comfort our souls is universal.  Michael Proust famously begins “remembrances of things past” with a description of biting into a small cake called a Madeleine and being overwhelmed by sensations of prior times.  While I can appreciate Proust but cannot relate to the Madeleine, I have no such difficulty with the lucid description of an afternoon lunch in “A strange and, sublime address” a novella by Amit Choudhuri. There we come across a beautiful description of a typical Bengali lunch. “Rice packed into an even white cake, had a spade like spoon embedded in it, slices of fried aubergine were arranged on a white dish; daal was served from another pan with a dropping ladle; long complex filaments of banana flower, exotic, botanical, lay in yet another pan of dark sauce; each plate had a heap of salt on one side, a green chili, and a slice of sweet smelling lemon.” To this pure Bengali spread, aloo posto that is potatoes cooked in poppy seed paste could be a perfect addition. I will add my recipe at the end of this article.

The origin of poppy seeds is attributed to the Western Mediterranean region of Europe. They were known to the Greeks and it is assumed that they reached India through the silk route by the 7th century.  The seed has numerous culinary uses but the plant is notorious for its opiate attributes. The seeds are rich in oil, carbohydrates, calcium and protein. Posto or poppy seeds is neither a condiment nor a spice. It falls under the category of seeds. The Indian variety is off white in color whereas the Western type is slate blue and slightly larger in size.   Today’s Indian posto dishes share ancient Persian origins.  The Portuguese probably brought the knowledge and use of these seeds to the Bengali cuisine.  The famous Goan Chicken Xacuti pronounced as Shacuti is cooked with poppy seeds and Kashmiri red chilies. Poppy seed paste was used in Avadhi cooking for thickening the rich Lucknowi Shahi kurma.”

“Pospel Li Mak?” (Are the poppies ripe?) This is an East Slavic folk song which expresses the theme of young women through the image of sowing and planting poppy seeds. One of the ancient, Pagan Slavic rain making ritual involves scattering poppy seeds into a well and stirring with a stick. In Jewish bakeries today, poppy seed pastries, bagels are sold and popular with everyone.   During the Jewish festival of Purim eating hamentaschen, a pocket triangular shaped pastry with poppy seed filling is traditional. Eating of hamantaschen is a part of the celebration in which Jews commemorate how the They escaped the Haman’s dastardly plans to massacre them The poppy seeds are said to represent all the bribes that Haman collected.   

One of the classic uses of poppy seed paste is in a comforting dish called aloo posto.  Variations of the same dish could be achieved with the ridged gourd or another alternative squash. For me pure comfort food is aloo posto combined with a kalai daal served with steaming hot rice. This excessive fondness for poppy seed dishes are a characteristic of Bengalis from Bankura, Birbhum or Burdwan area of West Bengal… I can remember at least two posto dishes at lunch every day while visiting my ancestral house in the interior of Bankura district. The paste enhanced with onions and green chilies would be lightly sautéed in mustard oil. Two such mid-size patties or posto baras would add a nice nutty, crunchy taste to an otherwise plain rice and daal fare. Eating the uncooked posto with mustard oil and green chilies was also popular during lunch. We often visited our ancestral village in the hot summer months. Fruits such as mangoes or jackfruits was available in excess as an accompaniment for every meal but vegetables were in short supply.  Pumpkin and bottle or ridged gourds were the only vegetables available to us in those summer months. Adding poppy seed paste to these vegetables definitely added a slumber factor to the post lunch siestas I remembered from those long ago summers. Although the seeds are not narcotic, they are known to have a slightly soporific effect if consumed in large quantities.

In my kitchen today, I tend to stick to family favorites like aloo (potato) and jhinge posto (ridged gourd). For variety, I may sprinkle the dry seeds on a plain stir fried spring onion dish. (peyaj posto) This versatile paste lends flavor and creaminess to cauliflowers, fish, chicken or eggs. A very modern twist to the endless uses of poppy seeds can be found in a pasta tagliatelle with poppy seeds and walnuts dish. Here I add the black poppy seeds (different from the white poppy seeds) and roughly chopped walnuts at the end of my cooking, then toss and coat the boiled and drained pasta before serving. I also cook the buffalo carp fish (substitute for Indian Ruhi fish) in a mustard, poppy seed paste.

Here is a recipe for aloo posto which should be easy to follow for our blog readers.
Potato (peeled and chopped in cubes) 4
Poppy seeds:  5/6 tbsp (ground to a fine paste)
Green chilies: 2(seeds removed)
Cumin seeds: ½ tsp
Salt and turmeric powder: 1 tsp each
Mustard oil: 1 tsp
Regular cooking oil: 3tbsp
Grind the poppy seeds to a fine powder and mix it with water to make a fine paste. Using the coffee grinder will work if u do not have a wet/dry chutney grinder. Heat the regular cooking oil, add the cumin seeds and green chilies.  Sauté the potatoes, add turmeric powder and salt. Then add the poppy seed paste and simmer for few minutes till the potatoes are cooked.  Add the mustard oil and turn off heat. You can serve it with hot, steamed white rice.



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