Around 3500-5000 BC, the ancient Sumerians called it Hul Gil (which translates to ‘joy plant’). Ask any native of West Bengal, India and seven thousand years later they will still vouch for the “joy” part of the name (and go into raptures). On a hot summer afternoon, a pile of white rice, a generous serving of daal and a side of potatoes cooked with poppy-seed paste is essentially the Bengali shortcut to the highest of the Seven Heavens. The charmingly named bhaat-ghoom siesta (rice-nap in my native language) which shortly follows that meal is equally coveted. Indeed, the career-minded Dr. Sen often laments that in his Faustian pursuit of science, his psyche sustained too much damage for him to enjoy a true bhaat–ghoom anymore.
So what am I talking about? Papaver somniferum or the poppy seed plant is one of the oldest plants mentioned in written history (4000 BC). The Sumerians passed on their knowledge of growing poppies (and of the euphoric effects of the seeds) to the Assyrians, who in turn looped in the Egyptians. Kind of an ancient version of passing the crack pipe, I guess. Ancient pictographs show the Egyptians growing poppies, and dried poppy plants surrounded the sarcophagi of the great pharaohs as they lay waiting for the eternal afterlife. Later around 1300 BC, the poppy reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea route. Due to a low-moderate content of morphine and codeine (the seeds do not contain these components but they are introduced as contamination while separating the seeds from the seed pods), poppy seeds, if consumed frequently and in a large quantity, can to induce some sleepiness (no doubt explaining Shurjo’s lost and lamented afternoon naps). Indeed, Somnos, the ancient Roman god of sleep, held poppies in his right hand and gave the plant its scientific name (P. somniferum). After the fall of the Roman empire, Arab traders brought poppies to China and then to Asia. Contrary to its use in Bengali cuisine, the culture of eating the seeds as food was not really widespread. In Persian and Mughal kitchens, it was used as a sauce thickener.
In more recent times, the British gave this neutral sauce thickener a distinctly non-neutral twist in its tail. China was originally a huge exporter of goods to Europe but hardly imported any European goods, which caused an international trade imbalance unacceptable to Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers”. As such, the British decided to fix this problem by exporting Indian opium to China. The Chinese had already been introduced to opium smoking by Portuguese and Dutch traders, but the British raised the use of this drug to the level of an epidemic by sending shiploads of opium and literally forcing the Chinese to buy their goods. It has to be among the great ironies of international trade that over two centuries later, China single-handedly destroyed the British steel industry (led by its Indian magnate Lakshmi Mittal) by dumping their own low-cost product on the world market. Three countries, two centuries, one lesson: karma is a bitch.
Anyhow, enough about world history, time for Bengali stories. Opium poppies were mainly grown in the dry-arid areas of the Bengal Province of the British Raj (mostly the present-day states of West Bengal and Bihar). Acre upon acre of agricultural land was transformed into poppy fields, watered with the blood, sweat and tears of the Indian farmers, who essentially had a simple choice between growing poppies and being hung from the nearest tree by the local sahib landlord. At this tragic cost, a small mercy came from the piles of seed pods left over after opium extraction. Ever willing to experiment with food, the Bengalis found out that the tiny poppy seeds (posto in my native language) make a very good, rather neutral but appetizing ingredient to include in their otherwise mundane diet. My fellow food history enthusiast Pritha Sen wrote a pretty comprehensive article on this quirk of history where she explains the historical background of poppy eating culture among Bengalis.
Once India got its independence, Indian government clamped down on poppy cultivation and it became more regulated. The once abundant ingredient became scarce and prices shot through the sky. Soon, the ordinary middle class Bengali found this highly prized commodity beyond his reach for daily consumption. But, remember we are talking about an addictive substance here – even today, Bengalis stretch their wallet and keep it in their daily menu, even if that means cutting down on the fish or the meat.
My ancestors being from riverine East Bengal where the opium poppy was never a big crop, I was never a big fan of posto but am gradually beginning to appreciate its subtle, complex taste. Dr. Sen on the other hand is quite fond of potatoes cooked with posto (maybe as it was the only thing one of his favorite ex-girlfriends knew how to make). I still have reservations against some of the posto-dishes which other Bengalis go gaga over but this tomato-peyaj posto is lip-smackingly delicious.
You’ll find a very similar post I wrote a while ago on the history of posto but I thought I needed to be more expansive and write a bit more about it.
The original recipe belongs to my namesake who write her blog at eCurry. You’ll find her original recipe here.
Tomato (preferably very ripe): ½ kg/1.2 lbs.
White poppy seeds/posto/khuskhus: 1 tbsp.
Dry red chillies: 2 nos.
Turmeric: ½ tsp.
Sugar: to taste
Green chillies: 2 nos. (adjust according to taste)
Onion, chopped: 1/3 cup
Mustard oil: 2 tbsp.
- Soak the poppy seeds and the dry red chillies in water for 15-20 minutes.
- Chop the tomatoes.
- Drain the water and grind them together to a fine paste (I used my grinding stone but if you do not have one, make sure you grind it really smooth. The texture will be very different if the seeds are still grainy)
- Heat up one table spoon of mustard oil (don’t let it burn, you want that mustard flavor to be with you) and add the chopped onions.
- Sauté them until translucent and then add the tomatoes and turmeric powder.
- Cook the tomatoes until it becomes thick and sauce-y.
- Add the poppy seed paste and salt. Cook until oil starts leaving the pan.
- Check for seasoning and add salt (if it needs more) and sugar to taste. If my tomatoes are not very tart, I usually skip the sugar.
- Take it off the fire and add chopped green chillies to it. Mix it lightly.
- Drizzle another table spoon of raw mustard oil over it and serve it with white rice. Serving it any other way would be a blasphemy.