“How Posto Became Bengal’s Comfort Food”
by Tania Banerjee
The Juggernaut, April 9, 2021
Posto: Bengal’s comfort food
On sunny summer afternoons, when my mother enjoyed a siesta, I tiptoed around her as silently as possible and reached out for that prized bowl of posto bata kept on the kitchen counter. The dose of earthy, nutty flavor of the seeds, crushed into paste and spiced with pungent mustard oil, satisfied my cravings.
White poppy seeds obtained from the opium plant are known as posto in the Bengal region, which comprises the state of West Bengal in eastern India and the country of Bangladesh. Traditionally, poppy seeds soaked in water for over an hour are ground using a stone slab the shil — commonly embossed with a fish shaped pattern for improved friction that had to be re-embossed every few months— and a stone rolling pin, the noda. The resulting paste is consumed in a variety of ways.
Posto has been ubiquitous in the kitchens of Bengal since the British colonists gained a hold on the opium trade here. The British, who came to rule over most of India from 1612-1947, forced farmers in Bengal into harvesting opium on a large scale. This opium was further sold through black market channels to China, a country where the product was already banned due to its addictive properties.
While wars broke out between China and Great Britain over opium, the poor wives of the opium farmers in Bengal experimented with the residue to supplement their paltry meals. This is how posto entered the Bengali diet and has been a staple since then. The poppy seed-pods and their latex are the narcotic parts of the opium plant. Ethically, poppy seeds should be harvested for culinary purposes only when the seed pods and the latex in them has completely dried.
As recipes around posto evolved, the Bengalis found their comfort food in alu posto(potato curry in poppy based gravy). Posto bata (raw paste of poppy seeds), posto bora (poppy fritters), jhinge posto (ridge gourd and poppy curry) are some that have made their way into Bengali cuisine as everyday dishes.
Shukto, a bitter vegetable curry that is revered among the Bengalis, is thickened with posto. Posto also found its way into Bengali desserts, typically made with curdled milk (a method introduced by the Portuguese colonisers).
Chefs in India continue experimenting with poppy seeds. They are used as thickening agents in fish and meat curries; in fact they are also used by chefs to give texture to yoghurts.
I am proposing a story on the origin of poppy seeds in India; how poppy made its way into Bengali culture and kitchens as a staple. I would also write about the individual Bengali dishes that centre around poppy seeds / are enhanced by the poppy seeds, and how the modern chefs are using poppy seeds to go beyond the established norms.
SOURCES: I intend to connect with chefs, food bloggers and food historians for the article.
Please let me know if you think this story can work for you.