If you know the Bengalis enough, you will know that we have a clear idea about our recent ancestry. Within the British province of Bengal, we very clearly know if our ancestors were native to what now is Bangladesh or native to what is now West Bengal. In Bengali the two terms “Bangal” and “Ghoti” defines who we are in terms of food and culture. The fight is never-ending, although pretty harmless for the most part. The general theme of arguments is, the Bangals being fortunate in terms of access to abundant vegetables and fresh water as well as sea fish, developed a very well developed cuisine, whereas the Ghotis who were native to West Bengal did not have a vibrant cuisine as the Bangals. The most common statement a Bangal will make is that Ghotis can cook nothing other than daal and posto (lentil soup and poppy seeds). The Bangals in turn are looked down upon for eating things which according to Ghotis, even cows would turn down.
I always wondered why among many other things, did the Ghotis grow a fondness for poppy seeds? Why didn’t the Bangals incorporate it into their cuisine? Looks like, eating poppy seeds as a common spice is not very ancient in India or in West Bengal. The Greeks knew and used poppy/opium from a very ancient time, followed by the Egyptians. The Arabs got introduced to opium by the Greeks during trading on the Silk Road, and they in turn introduced it to South Asia during the 12th century. As opium was not prohibited in Islam, it soon became very popular during the Mughal Empire and cultivation of opium was very common in the Northern and Western India during the 15th century.
The situation took a different turn when the British defeated the last Nawab of Bengal and took over the undivided Bengal Province (which is now Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal) in 1757. The British soon after realized that opium could generate huge currency inflows as it was very popular not only in India, but also in China. As compared to other areas, Bengal opium was of a very high quality and it lured the British to set up illegal trading with the Chinese. They also forced farmers to convert all their farmlands to cultivate poppy/opium, in the process contributing to the Bengal Famine of 1770 (Chhiattōrer monnōntór) that killed more people than Hitler and Pol Pot combined. Paradoxically, somewhere along the process Bengalis developed a taste for the tiny white seeds of the flower decimating their land, and started incorporating it into their cuisine. Although poppy seed has been used as a culinary item since antiquity by the Arabs, it was mostly used as a thickening agent (much like flour or cornstarch nowadays). Bengalis were among the first to cook with it, and make it a bona fide mainstream spice. Poppies were mainly grown in the Patna region of Bihar and in the Western part of now West Bengal which is close to the Bihar border. If we look at the use of poppy seed in the cuisine of modern West Bengal more closely, it is still most popular among the Bengalis from that particular region (comprising the districts of Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia). Gradually it spread among other West Bengalis too.
Poppy seeds were always an expensive item and still are. But, it did not prohibit the Ghotis from incorporating it into their cuisine in many different forms. They eat it in pretty much every fashion, raw, cooked, whole, ground, in curries, in fries, in meat and the list goes on. Being a Bangal by origin, it was never a big thing in my Maa’s kitchen. But I am gradually acquiring a taste for it and incorporating it in my kitchen. Beguner jhal posto is very simple to make and yet delicious. It requires very few ingredients but is a winner even to diehard Bangal, Dr. Sen.
White poppy seeds: around 2 tbsp.
Whole dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.
Small eggplants: 8-12 (depending on how small or big they are) You can also use regular eggplants and cut it into smaller chunks.
Turmeric: ½ tsp.
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp. or a tad bit more
Salt to taste
• Soak the poppy seeds and the red chilies together for at least half an hour (soaking will make the grinding easy)
• Grind the poppy seeds along with the red chilies to a fine paste after they are soaked.
• Slice the eggplants either in half or in quarters if they are big.
• Heat up the oil and add the sliced eggplants to the oil. Stir fry them a little bit to coat them nicely in the oil.
• Add the turmeric and the poppy seed paste. Coat the eggplants well with the paste and continue cooking for few more minutes.
• Add salt and a few sprinkling of water, mix everything lightly and then cover the pot with a lid.
• Let the eggplants cook completely. Uncover, check seasoning and also check if the eggplants are done.
• I like the poppy paste to be clinging to the eggplants but if you want, you can add a little bit of water to make a thick gravy. It should not be watery.
• Serve hot with plain white rice.
Alternatively, as I have done here, mix everything together and cook covered until the eggplants are cooked and then cook uncovered until it reaches desired consistency. This is the original recipe but I like the method I described first. Shallow frying the eggplants brings out the flavor really well. The last method is a healthier option, it requires less oil.