Bengalis, the Opium Seed Eaters, and their Cuisine, Alu Posto, and Other Dishes

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The British had set up their base in Bengal, soon after the Battle of Plassey, in 1757, realised that there was a gigantic market for illegal opium in China. Undulating poppy fields replaced agricultural tracts of land, suddenly. The starving families of farmers were in a pathetic state. Human brains are experimental and innovative. The huge amounts of dried poppy seed left as waste by the colonial bosses acquired a special role due to the ingenuity of the women. The frugal meal of rice, boiled potatoes and mustard oil were happily enhanced by this addition. Lily traces the history of Posto, an integral part of the Bengali . She traces its use internationally, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.  

Believe me, when I say that I wanted this to be a write up of only one of my favourite Bengali dishes, Alu Posto, potatoes in poppy seed paste, you will have to forgive me as I begin with the rather selfish origin of this dish and deliberately meander off into the fascinating of opium! If one would ask any Bengali his lunch menu, he would more often than not reply Alu Posto. He may even say Kancha Posto, which means raw poppy seed paste with a lavish quantity of mustard oil, rice and a feisty green chilli. A perfectly satiating Bengali lunch would definitely be Alu Posto in combination with Urad dal (Biuli).Well known author Chitrita Banerji writes about poppy seeds, “It’s used in other cuisines but its prolific, enthusiastic even single minded utilisation is only to be seen in Bengal.”

The awe-inspiring phenomena is that a residual by-product of the opium plant emerges as a highly valued spice!Posto, poppy seeds or khus khush is derived from the opium poppy, which has a close with India, as a medicinal plant and not as an ingredient in gourmet cooking. Dhanwantari Nighantu, one of the most ancient texts dealing with drug properties mentions it as a for numerous ailments. Gradually, it became a recreational drug during the reign of Akbar, the Mughal emperor. Royal dictate put an end to its cultivation. The happy looking gorgeous crimson coloured poppy flower can be spied in royal textile motifs in a special place. After the drug was extracted from the latex of the poppy seed pods, tiny dried white seeds remained. These were non-narcotic. The royal kitchen chefs probably sneaked them into the palace kitchens as a thickener for rich gravies or to enhance their texture.

Well, all would have been hunky-dory had not the British, who had set up their base in Bengal, soon after the Battle of Plassey, in 1757, realised that there was a gigantic market for illegal opium in China. Undulating poppy fields replaced agricultural tracts of land, suddenly. Lamentations of the grain starved farmers fell on deaf ears as the British accumulated the blood red booty. The once rich agricultural economy of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was bled dry by single-minded English civil servants.

The starving families of farmers were in a pathetic state. The men folk lay in a stupor induced by Aphim, the vernacular name for opium. The farmer’s wife had to forage in forest groves and ponds to put together a meal. Human brains are experimental and innovative. The huge amounts of dried poppy seed left as waste by the colonial bosses acquired a special role due to the ingenuity of the women. They were delighted to discover that if the seeds were ground to a paste, they exuded a unique nutty flavour. The frugal meal of rice, boiled potatoes and mustard oil were happily enhanced by this addition. Besides filling the stomach, it cooled the body in the hot weather and had a soporific effect as a bonus. The post lunch siesta was blissful, I bet!

Slowly, this potato and poppy paste dish spread across the Padma River towards East Bengal too. The paste could be eaten raw or cooked with most tubers like colocasia and yams. Gourds, brinjals and fish too were slathered with it!

Poppy paste along with tamarind juice made a cool and refreshing drink. After enthralling the regions of Bankura and Birbhum, Posto slipped into Burdwan and Midnapore, where it adorned food items. Kitchen art in the form of Goyna bori, or jewellery vadis gave it an honourable place. Plates and even palates of the traditionally vegetarian Vaishnava Nadia embraced it.

There are a wealth of recipes featuring Posto. Even fritters and dishes made with initially forbidden ingredients like onion and garlic added poppy seeds. The classy portals of urban kitchens opened up their doors to it slowly. Sophisticated egg, meat and fish preparations started adding it. The best compliment for Posto was its use in the crowning glory of Bengali culinary legacy, the Shukto. British and Jewish settlers used it in their poppy seed cakes. And pastries. It was used for garnishing and decorating savouries and bread. The final welcome to it was the rolling of the Bengali sweet, Sandesh, in roasted poppy seeds. The crunch was to die for.

After India attained independence, there was s a scarcity of the seed due to government coming down hard on its cultivation. Well, it costs much more, now.

The Egyptian papyrus scroll Ebers Papyrus, written in 1550 BC, lists poppy seed as a sedative. The Minoan, a Bronze Age civilisation around Crete cultivated poppies for their seed and used a milk, opium and honey mixture to calm crying babies. The Sumerians knew about it too. Poppy seeds have been known to promote fertility and wealth and wondrously even supposed to provide magical powers of invisibility.

North Americans use it in poppy seed muffins, rusk, bagels, bialys and sponge cake. Across Europe, black and white poppy seeds are often sprinkled on soft white bread. Germans and Poles love it too. Hamburger buns have them as well. Pastry fillings have finely ground poppy seeds blended with butter, milk and sugar. Croissants and rolls have them in jam or syrup. It’s a poppy party all over the world now.

What I know is that if I walk past a swaying field of brilliant scarlet or crimson poppies in Kashmir, I gasp in wonder at their beauty. I smile to myself for I know what bliss these pretty flowers harbour in their intoxicated hearts.

Bye, till I lick up my Alu Posto and rice smeared with .

©Lily Swarn

Photos from the internet.

#BengaliFood #AluPosto #EssentialBengaliFood #KhusKhus #HistoryOfPosto #BengaliCuisine #AluPostoAndRice #DifferentTruths

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn
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