Discovering Posto: Seeped In Colonialism, Turned Yum By Farmers
Image Credit: Posto or poppy seeds are the residual byproduct of the poppy plant. Image Credit: Shutterstock

To say I can have Posto in any form—in its raw paste version with a dash of mustard oil, in its cutlet type with a bowl of dal-bhaat, in its vegetable curry variety (with ridge gourd, cauliflower or the best, potatoes) or its fish curry-enhancing avatar—is just a truth I live by. It’s the same for most Bengalis, whether they live in or beyond Bengal. Just like we carry bottles of Jharna ghee when we move cities, we love to pack Posto, the popular Bengali name for poppy seeds, for our nomadic kitchens. For those of us who don’t cook, making friends with those who cook delicious bowls of Aloo Posto or finding local eateries that serve that much-loved Posto Boda are basically life-saving essentials.

Bengalis have turned Posto into the queen of the kitchen. Truth be told, Posto is used in other cuisines of India too, but mostly as a garnish. As a young kid growing up in Punjab and Gujarat, I used to laugh at the fact that my friends had only ever tasted Khus Khus on top of hot rice. If only they knew the transformative power Posto has that can turn the humblest potato or cauliflower into a world-class dish. If only they knew the simple joy of having a long bhaat ghoom (siesta or afternoon nap) after eating Posto with rice.  

As Bengali cuisine and its vegetarian dishes gain popularity across India and the world, everyone is slowly and surely becoming aware of the benefits of having this ingredient in the kitchen. But did you know that Posto, its procurement and use in East Indian kitchens is mired in an exploitative colonial history?

The Byproduct Farmers Didn’t Throw Out

In case you don’t know, Posto is the residual byproduct of the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. The plant produces pods, which are a rich source of opium. Once the narcotic drug is extracted from the pods, the tiny poppy seeds are left behind. So no, eating Posto will not give you any high except in terms of foodgasms, because the narcotic aspect has been removed. And yet, it is the greed for opium that led to the discovery of Posto by the farmers of colonial Bengal (current areas of Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bangladesh were a part of the Bengal Presidency during those times).

Ancient Indian and even Islamic medicinal texts, like the Dhanwantari Nighantu, suggest that opium was used in India long before the British arrived for medicinal purposes. But its cultivation and trade were limited, and the extraction was only ever done to treat ailments or for use as a recreational drug. The traders behind the British East India Company, however, realized in the nineteenth century that if they had to compete with China’s booming opium trade, then they needed cheap and easy access to opium too. Their eyes, as usual, fell on Bengal.

Large tracts of land in North and East India (basically the entire Ganges belt) were restricted to only opium cultivation. Historian Rolf Bauer, in The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India (2019), writes that at its peak, poppy was harvested by 1.3 million peasant households. The British opened two opium factories on the banks of the Ganges to turn the opium extract from the poppy pods into cakes or balls, pack them in wooden chests, and transport them to China to wage the infamous Opium Wars (1839-1842). What was left behind for the severely impoverished Indian opium farmer, were the poppy seeds.

The Proud Legacy Of Posto

But what our colonial rulers never fully understood that Indians are extremely resourceful, masters of Jugaad as they say today. The farmer households which were burdened by the exploitative British taxation and agricultural system realized that they had to eat something, right? In their hour of need, they picked up Posto, the women of these households experimented with it, and thus was created the proud, survivalist legacy of Posto. Now, experts not only praise the inclusion of this seed in East Indian diets for its taste, but also for the health benefits. “Apart from being considered easily digestible in the summer heat, posto also has a uniquely delicate taste which caresses the palate without arousing it,” says food historian Chitrita Banerji in Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals (1991).

As mentioned before, it was the Bengalis who experimented with Posto to such an extent that you can today have a full course meal featuring the waste product the British threw out. But Bengalis from West Bengal aren’t the only inheritors of this legacy. My Bihari mother-in-law introduced me to a sweetened, ghee-flavoured Posto Halwa a few years back, proving that the cuisines of Bihar and Jharkhand do celebrate the legacy of Posto.

And it was after reading Banerji’s works that I came to know there are more recipes out there to try! As she mentions in Bengali Cooking, while living in Dhaka in the 1970s, Banerji also came across a chicken and Posto recipe from a Bangladeshi Muslim family. On another trip, this time to Rajshahi, Bangladesh—one of the areas where poppy and marijuana cultivation was prolific—she discovered local cooks preparing lamb with Posto! If the discovery of these unusual Posto-based dishes doesn’t inspire you to get cooking with this delicacy more, then I don’t know what will.