Tomato-Peyaj Posto/Tomatoes Cooked with Onions and Poppy Seed Paste

 

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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 bhaatghoom anymore.

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Home-Grown Tomatoes

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.

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Photo Courtesy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poppy_seed

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Recipe:

Ingredients

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.

 

Tomato garlic chili chicken and busting the myth about chili powder

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When I was growing up, I heard the same thing over and over again from my Maa. She said “it’s not good to eat a lot of red chilli powder” and she added green chilies to everything she cooked, reserving the red chili powder for the unavoidable dishes. The theory was, too much of it can rip off your stomach lining and cause ulcers. I never asked Maa how much was too much, as at the time I was quite uninterested in cooking myself. Recently I heard the same thing from one of my friends; suddenly I thought about reading up on the truth about red chili powder and deciding based on fact rather than hearsay as to whether it is indeed harmful.

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Chilies (which Americans call chili peppers although chilies are not peppers), are originally from the South America and are an indispensable item in South America and Asian cuisine. Although introduced to India and Asia much later by the Portuguese, chilies rapidly gained extreme popularity across all of Asia. Indeed, I cannot imagine my kitchen without having my stock of fresh green chilies and also a jar full of red hot powdered red chilies.

Chilies, both fresh and dried, are rich in nutrition. The main component responsible for the fumes which come out of your nostrils and ears after you consume chilies is called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for releasing endorphins (the pleasure hormones), maybe explaining why some people (like my husband) are quite addicted to hot foods. From a medical perspective, capsaicin has long been used in rubs and ointments as an analgesic and pain killer. Further, capsaicin is known to have anti-bacterial component and believed to be anti-carcinogenic for certain types of gut cancers. It also helps in digestion if eaten in moderate quantity. This resolves the apparent paradox that Naga jolokias, the world’s hottest peppers, are used by some tribes in Northeast India as a cure for stomach ailments.  Apart from capsaicin, chilies in general are rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A and contain a large amount of Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.

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Coming back to where we started-  why do chilies have such bad reputation then? Why are my Maa and my friend so cautious about using it? Looks like they had no clue what they were talking about. It’s one of those things which you learn from your mother which she learnt from her mother and the theory goes from one generation to another without being exposed to the scalpel of rationality (knowing the adulteration culture in India, red chili powders are contaminated with inedible/harmful ingredients like colored saw dust, the warning from my friend, my grandma and my mom might have a background there).

First myth: Green chilies are healthier than red chilies: Wrong. There are no significant differences between the two (although the vitamin C content might reduce while drying). The dried chilies are dehydrated, hence more concentrated in terms of heat. The drying changes the flavor as well.

Second myth: Red chili powder is bad for you: Wrong. If you are familiar with the word ‘moderation’, you are more likely to benefit from it than being harmed. So, turn up the heat and enjoy the endorphin release, just don’t go overboard. Too much of anything is bad, even water. So, don’t blame the harmless chilli powder – blame your measuring spoon instead. And yes, did I tell you how easy it is to make your own chili powder? It takes just a few minutes and you can be certain that there is no adulteration.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Organic, free range chicken: around 2.5 lbs.

Tomatoes: two medium, vine ripened, chopped

Garlic: three medium cloves (a little more will add extra flavor if you are a garlic lover like me) very finely minced

Preferably mustard oil: 2 tbsp. (replace it with olive oil if you do not have mustard oil)

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper powder: 1 tbsp. or more if you like it to be hot (the tartness of the tomatoes will cut back on the heat a lot)

Turmeric: ½ tsp. (optional)

Water: 11/2 cups (adjust to your liking)

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot/kadai. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke, it will destroy all the nutrition. Let it heat up on medium flame. This is a very important step.
  • Once the oil is hot, remove the pot from the fire and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle in the warm oil for 10-15 seconds. Put the pot back on fire.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and add a tea spoon of salt. Mix it well. Let the tomatoes sweat a bit and then break the tomatoes with the spoon a little bit. It will help the tomatoes cook faster.
  • Add the red chili powder/cayenne pepper and the turmeric (if using). Again mix them well. Keep stirring the paste every so often until the raw taste of the tomatoes is almost gone (around 5 minutes).
  • Add the chicken (try to tap the moisture a bit) and mix them well with the spices. Turn the heat to high and stir the chicken very often to dry up the water released from the meat.
  • Once you see that the excess water is gone and the spices have taken a paste like consistency and hugging the meat, you know you are ready to add water.
  • Add around a cup of hot water, add salt and give it a good stir.
  • Let the whole thing come to a boil and reduce the heat again to medium. Cook it until the meat is done and the gravy has reached almost its desired consistency.
  • Let the chicken rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving (if possible). That way, the meat will absorb the flavor and the gravy will come to its desired consistency.
  • Serve piping hot with roti or any bread of your choice (can be eaten with rice but it will taste better with bread). Dip the breads in the gravy and enjoy.

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Neechey Chacha ki dukan…..Upar Madhu ki pakwaan/slow cooked curried potatoes

DSC_6800My life has been crazy for the last few daysmonths. But sometimes (read most of the time), when I am very tired and sleepy, my mind drifts away to different worlds, which are often clear and blurry at the same time…the fancy way to say this would be that I enter a trancelike halfway state between the worlds. The other world I am thinking about today is my college hostel, the one place in my life which I am yet to figure out if I loved, hated or both. Both the feelings are pretty strong when I think about those days. But anyway, I will talk about my hostel in another post.

DSC_6810The memory which suddenly came to my half-awake brain is of the tiny little store stuck in the wall right next to our hostel. We used to call it Chacha-r dokan (Uncle’s store). It was really a tiny store…I mean teeny-tiny. Chacha was a devout Muslim with a white beard, pretty bulky, with a big tummy and a very soft, polite nature. He was like a messiah to us girls who were almost in a prison, so disgustingly strict was our hostel. He used to sell anything a girl could need in her college-hostel life. From sanitary napkins to science notebooks, you name it, he had it. It was like a tiny and more efficient version of Walmart. My college days, to put it delicately, were NOT associated with an excess of money. Chacha was the person who was my go to person if I needed some cash to see me through particularly barren stretches of that already harsh desert. He didn’t even know my name. It was all trust. All I would say was “Chacha, paanch sao rupiya udhar milega? Kaal-parsu waapas de denge” (Uncle, can I borrow Rs.500/- from you? I’ll return it in a day or two). I didn’t do that every day though…only when I really needed it. He gave me the money and I returned it on time. Every time. I think when we were in our third year, Chacha stopped coming to the store and his son took over the business. He was the nicest person I have ever seen as a shopkeeper but we all missed Chacha. I used to keep asking his son if Chacha will come to the store anytime or not. He never did and sometime later he passed away. Chacha‘s son moved on in his life, as we did with ours, and the store was closed for good after couple of years. I don’t know exactly why, when or how but that tiny store and Chacha became part of an everlasting and fuzzily pleasant memory.

DSC_6809Like my other posts, this story will not follow a recipe or a food which is related to the above story. It’s not related to any food; it’s a part of my life and a cherished memory. But don’t worry; I have something to share which is ‘food’…for real. A potato curry known by us Bengalis as “alur dawm” and by similar-sounding names (like dum alu which literally means slow cooked potatoes) in other Indian languages. There are a million varieties but this one is my friend Madhu’s. She got the recipe from somewhere and then tweaked it to suit her taste (as she does for most things :P).  I follow her recipe to the T and I love it every time I dig into this “alur dawm

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Baby potatoes: 10-12 nos. or regular potatoes (4-5) cut into four

Tomato: One big, fat and ripe

Green chili: As per your taste

Red chili powder: 2 tsp. or more/less

Ginger paste: 2 tbsp.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Pnachphoron/Bengali five spice: 1 tsp. +1/2 tsp.

Whole jeera/cumin: ½ tsp.

Whole dhania/coriander: ½ tsp.

Dried red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Cilantro: a handful

Salt to taste

Oil: few table spoons

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  • Poke the baby potatoes with a fork and boil them in salted water. Do not overcook them, they will fall apart. Once cooked, peel the skin.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, dry roast ½ tsp. each of pnachphoron, jeera, coriander and two dry red chilies. Once cooled, grind them to a fine powder.
  • Heat up the oil and add the cooked potatoes, shallow fry them until they are golden brown in color. You can add turmeric at this point but entirely optional.
  • Drain them on an absorbent paper.
  • In the same oil add pnachphoron, two dry red chilies and the bay leaves. Let them sizzle a little bit and then add the tomatoes. You can finely chop the tomato or mash them with your hand.
  • Add the ginger paste, red chili powder and turmeric and few chopped green chilies as well.
  • Cook them until oil separates.
  • Add the potatoes back to the spice paste and coat them very well. Cook for few minutes.
  • Add just enough water to cover the potatoes, add salt, mix and then cover the pot.
  • Let the potatoes cook on low-medium heat for 10-15 minutes.
  • Uncover and check for seasoning. If the water is completely absorbed, add more luke warm water. Remember, the potatoes will quickly absorb all the water and the curry will end up with no gravy. If you like it that way, it should be fine, or else leave a little bit more gravy than you want.
  • Add the chopped cilantro and few more chopped green chilies if you want, give it a good stir and then turn off the flame.
  • Add the roasted spice powder, mix again and then cover the pot. As my friend Madhu said “let the aromas soak in”.
  • Goes best with luchi/puri. I have eaten it with methi paratha and it tasted very good. But methi parathas have a very strong taste, so it was sort of masking the flavor of the alur dawm. Next time I’ll eat it with luchi/puri for sure.