The opium poppy, from which posto or khus khus is derived, has a long relationship with Bengal, and led to two bloody wars between China and the Western powers
You may love aloo posto but do you know the story behind its inception? And how this prized ingredient which is one of the most expensive Indian spices in the market today was born out of waste? Despite being a comfort food, the story of aloo posto's origin is a tumultuous one. Turns out, after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British discovered a huge market for illegal opium in China and decided to set up their base in Bengal.
Huge tracts of agricultural land in the Bengal Presidency were transformed into poppy fields which benefited the British immensely. In Opium (Drugs: The Straight Facts), Thomas Santella writes that by the end of the 18th century, the British had declared a monopoly on opium in India, making Bengal the capital of opium production.
At the height of the trade, opium fields covered nearly 500,000 acres of land, employing 1.5 million small farmers across Bengal and Bihar. The farmers struggled to feed their families since their lands were taken away and production of other vegetables decreased massively.
Rolf Bauer, a professor of economic and social history at the University of Vienna, has found that the opium business was hugely exploitative and ended up impoverishing Indian peasants. "Poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been much better without it," Dr Bauer said.
Historical records suggest that interest-free advance payments were offered to poppy farmers who could not access easy credit. But according to Dr Bauer what the farmers paid for rent, manure, irrigation and hired workers was higher than the income from the sale of opium. In short, the price peasants received for their opium did not even cover the cost of growing it.
The story of the aloo posto begins with the wife of one such farmer. Her family was robbed of the grains that fed them; she had access to a good amount of dried-out poppy seed, left as waste by the colonial masters. She decided to experiment with the seeds and ground them into a paste to cook it, only to find that the paste had a slightly nutty flavour with a sweet aftertaste and blended well with common kitchen ingredients like salt and mustard.
It also elevated the taste of the humble panta bhaat, a widely used rustic fermented rice dish. “An added bonus is its slightly soporific effect, which deepens the post-lunch siesta for an ease-loving Bengali”, author Chitrita Banerji had once written.
The Marriage Of Aloo And Posto
It is said that the farmer's wife mixed the 'posto' with boiled potatoes and with ridge gourd (or jhinge in Bengali). The jhinge posto, though not as popular as the aloo posto, still remains a staple vegetarian dish in Bengali households. Since potatoes were widely available all across Bengal and were a cheap source of nutrients, the aloo posto became a popular item. It's important to note that the Mughals already had a rich tradition of using poppy seeds to thicken their gravies.
Taking a cue from the already existing tradition posto was eventually introduced into various Bengali curries to thicken, and enrich them and the word about posto spread across Padma as well where the rich paste was being cooked with various other tubers such as yams and colocasia, as well as with meat.