Bengalis cannot do without posto. They are addicted to it, as if it were opium. Which is understandable, seeing as they are both parts of the poppy seed.
Posto or dried poppy seed, is indispensable in Bengali cooking. It’s gentle aroma can make the birds sing.. Fried, it will give form to the formless, and burst in your mouth like millions of flavour packed roe. As a paste, the creamy texture can fill your heart with joy and take you to a higher plane of existence. Posto bata (paste) has been known to drag busy men helplessly back into their mother’s kitchens. And while some might argue, a simple snuff of opium produces the same effects , I’d argue Posto does this better.
Posto in Bengali cuisine however has a very dark past. Afim was used by the Mughals as a recreational drug. It was also used as a medicine and a potent pain killer. In fact, Akbar himself made a few opium exclusive farmlands in his kingdoms to keep up with the demand for poppy.
Opium was popular in China as well. The moment the British got wind of this, the fate of Bengal’s farmers were sealed.
In the early 19th century, the British were only allowed to trade with China from the southern port of Guangzhou.
One of the most sought after Chinese products that the British came for was tea. However the Chinese refused to part with their tea for anything except silver, which unfortunately the British did not have too much of. They came up with a cunning solution to this problem. Sell the Chinese opium for tea.
Opium is sourced from the seeds of the Poppy flower. An immature poppy seed pod is chosen, and then scratched with a sharp knife. A sticky white latex oozes out from the cut on the seed pod. This latex, over time, drains and leaves behind a yellow residue. This residue in then dried and sold as opium.
Where would the British get so much opium from? Well, that was easy too. They won the battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal in 1757, and they had seen poppy being cultivated in his lands. The British first banned the use of opium in Bengal. Then they converted practically all of the farmlands into poppy plantations. Thousands and thousands of acres of beautiful blood red poppy flowers, without any grain or vegetable crops in sight, being tended to by hundreds of starving farmers, who had no food to harvest and nothing to eat, except vast fields of poppy flowers and dried poppy seeds. The farmers of Bengal ate just that.
With no vegetables, or any other food available, the farmers started to cook the dried poppy seeds, the waste product of opium production. They cooked it with whatever little rice they had and during particularly harsh times, just had cooked poppy seed paste.
Today the farmlands of Bengal are used to grow many more crops than just poppy, but the Bengali’s themselves haven’t managed to keep the poppy seeds out of every other dish.