A Bengali favourite around the world, the posto remains untouched by modern culinary experiments, traditional recipes still beloved, craved for, and introduced to every new generation
Beyond the Bengali world, ask someone anything about Bengali food and they will surely mention three things: “Machchi, Roshogolla, and Alu Posto”. They might also throw in an “Aami tomaake bhaalobaashi”, but stop them from getting carried away. Is there more to Bengali cuisine than these three items of interest? Of course, but posto definitely is the queen of Bengali kitchens.
Posto, or poppy seeds, or the Urdu khus-khus, has an interesting history in the sub-continent. The poppy plant was primarily used in Ayurveda as a medicinal herb to produce remedies for various ailments. During Akbar’s reign, it was discovered as opium, or apheem, and quickly became a popular recreational drug, while the blood red flowers became a favourite of the durbar miniature artists. The seeds — tiny, white, and kidney-shaped — were waste, after the gum that produced the drug was extracted from the poppy pods. The Mughal kitchens discovered the thickening quality of the seed when turned into a paste, and it was introduced into qormas and gravies. But, the poppy seed wasn’t experimented with beyond that. But when the good ol’ colonisers arrived in 1757, they realised the opium market in China was begging to be taken advantage of, and soon, the Bengal region became a flourishing belt for poppy cultivation for commercial opium, cruelly taking over agricultural land, and other food and cash crops.
Trust Indian housewives to be inventive with waste. While their farmer husbands toiled on producing more poppy — food crops be damned — the wives realised that they had to do something with the mountains of poppy seeds being dumped as trash. A quick smash revealed an interesting woody-nutty paste, the seeds could also be cooked whole with vegetables, and married wonderfully with mustard oil, the preferred fat of the region. And that’s how posto entered Bengali cuisine. Cooking posto with vegetables like potato and ridge gourd, served with urad dal (biulir dal), was soon elevated to a culinary skill, and cause for celebration. Spicier dishes like the Pyanj Posto (spicy mash of posto and onions) and Roshun Posto (same with garlic) started appearing as first courses for Bengali lunches. Posto was soon pasted, rolled into balls, and deep fried into Posto Bora, or fritters. Taking a cue from the already existing Mughal tradition of using the paste as a thickener, posto was introduced into various Bengali curries to thicken, and enrich, them — the Shukto being a primary example. This curry of bitter and root vegetables used to be a thin, watery, broth, high on bitter and umami flavours from the bitter gourd, sweet potato, brinjal, raw banana, and the Paanch Phoron spice mix. The introduction of the posto paste took the teeth off the strong, hot flavours, adding a sweet, woody roundness to the dish, softening the edges, and making it a heartwarming and wholesome first course lunch dish. The same happened to various chicken and fish curries, and gravies. Posto paste started doing what nut paste or cream does in north Indian cuisine — thickening the gravy, balancing the spices, adding a delectable creaminess to the gravy, making it richer, and bringing it all together. The marriage of Mughal and Bengali traditions of using posto is best seen in the Rezala. Possibly the most coveted Mughlai gravies in Bengal, the Rezala celebrates the flavours of posto, complimenting it with other soft ingredients and spices like cashews and fox nuts, creating a luscious, aromatic, and absolutely divine meat gravy.
I am personally extremely inclined towards the Posto Bata and Pyanj Posto. The Posto Bata, or posto paste, is a true celebration of the ingredient, and involves nothing but a fresh paste of the seed — it used be done with the shil-nora/sil-batta (Indian mortar-pestle) during my childhood (the crushing and pasting of the seed with stone induces a richness from the breaking down of the seed’s fat that modern equipment cannot emulate), but mixer-grinders do the job these days — doused in mustard oil, with some salt and green chillies for company. The Pyanj Posto is also a wholesome celebration of posto, unlike the potato variety where the vegetable tends to try and hog the limelight, and is a true revelation as to how much the seed can still hold its ground amidst spices and a strong personality like caramelised onions. I am not sure if its ability to become a drug causes a posto lunch to induce a delectably satisfying siesta (or if Bengalis have just cooked up another excuse for their love for laziness and long afternoon naps), but posto and ghoom (sleep) go hand in hand.
The interesting thing is that, unlike various traditional ingredients, posto has not been given a modern update. No one is turning it into foam or jus, creating reductions, or using it in random marinades. Posto has demanded respect, and has remained a favourite with every new generation, and we have learned to rise to its level and appreciate traditional recipes and dishes without even feeling the need to tweak it or change it. Posto has remained a trustworthy and beloved classic, like a silk saree or a black tux, and like they say, classic never goes out of style.