Yesterday, one of my friends, Aranjit shared a picture of a dish, which he prepared for his son, in our WhatsApp group. It was a chicken dish cooked in opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) seed curry. Posto (or, the opium poppy-seed) is one of my favourite dish, in any combination. Well, ask any Bengali and he or she will confirm that পোস্ত (posto) is one of the most loved Bengali delicacies. On a lazy weekend, I was wondering how can a residual by-product of the opium plant become a popular ingredient in the Bengali kitchen?
According to Pritha Sen’s narration, the opium poppy, from which posto, khus-khus or poppy-seed is derived, has a long relationship with India, not as a gourmet ingredient but as a medicinal plant. As remedy for a number of ailments, it finds mention in the Dhanvantari Nighantu — a treatise on the medicinal plants & their pharmacological actions attributed to Lord Dhanvantari. Commonly worshipped as the God of Medicine, Dhanvantari is regarded as the origin exponent of Indian medicine. He taught surgery and other divisions of Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine) at the instance of Sushruta, to a group of sages among whom Sushruta was the foremost. That was at the time of the beginning of the Common Era.
Opium slowly took on the form of a recreational drug during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Its cultivation was stepped up by royal diktat, and the beautiful crimson flower found a special place as well in royal textile motifs.
The tiny dried white seeds formed after the drug had been extracted from the latex of the poppy-seed pods were non-narcotic and crept into the royal kitchens primarily as a texture enhancer and thickener for gravies. The story may have ended there had not the British discovered the huge market for illegal opium in China soon after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which is when they first set up their base in Bengal. Overnight huge tracts of agricultural land in the Bengal Presidency were transformed into rolling poppy fields and while the native farmer lamented the death of golden harvests, the British raked in a crimson booty.
Robbed of the produce that fed the family — a miserable state compounded by the opium-induced stupor of her husband — the farmer’s wife looked for ways to supplement the meagre meals put together by foraging in forests, ponds and groves. The enormous amounts of dried out poppy-seed, left as waste by the colonial masters, suddenly took on an important role. She experimented with it and found much to her delight that the seeds when ground to a paste exuded a nutty flavour, blended well with mustard oil and enhanced the frugal meals of পান্তা ভাত (panta bhaat) — leftover rice soaked in water, or boiled potatoes. In the intense dry heat of the area, it also cooled the body. Thus was born the Bengali’s cherished posto.
Recipes featuring posto are aplenty today as it entered the urban kitchen and range from fritters, aloo-posto (potatoes in poppy-seed paste), kancha posto bata (raw poppy-seed paste) to murgi-posto (chicken in poppy-seed paste), dim-posto (egg in poppy-seed paste), and rui-posto (fish in poppy-seed paste).
The story of posto is the story of drug trade, exploitation and the Opium Wars and eating posto is just a tip of an entire culinary repertoire born out of waste. Much like how the once humble pate or foie gras, made by European peasants from animal offal for protein and warmth in bitter winters now occupies pride place on fine dining tables.