I have long wished to write a post about poppy seeds because they are fabulously under appreciated and prominently featured in a good many Ukrainian dishes. And, what do you know, thumbing through newly arrived April issue of the American food magazine Saveur, I found a charming article about these blue-black beauties. I felt scooped, of course, but it rekindled my interest in proffering poppy observations.
The perfumey tasting seed of the flowering plant Papver somniferum, poppy seeds (mak) are tiny and actually kidney shaped. They also have high fat content and are a rich source of calcium and manganese. I learned from Gabriella Gershenson’s Saveur article that poppy seeds are ancient and have been cultivated since the Neolithic era in Europe (around 1,000 years BCE). White poppy seeds are common in Asian cuisines and played a fascinating role in the British colonization of Bengali India. The indigo hued variety is more common in western, European dishes.
Often paired with honey, poppy seeds are widely used in Ukrainian fare. Poppy-laced cakes, doughnuts and swirly rolls are everyday treats. According to Culinaria, edited by Marion Trutter, Nicolai Gogol was rather fond of honeyed poppy seed cake, apparently calling it a “paradisaical dish.” Poppy seeds are also stuffed into a sweet vareneky (Ukrainian dumpling) or serve as the base for sweet sauces. Poppy is also the star of kutya (кутя), one of 12 traditional dishes served at Christmas time. Kutia is a kind of wheat porridge, lavender with poppy and sweetened with honey, that is topped with chopped walnuts and dried fruits. The dishes sweetness, I am told, mirrors the sweetness of Christ. And, boy is sweet!
Of course, poppies are also the source of that ancient, Lethean substance opium, which is made from the air drying of the milky, white latex of unripe poppy seed pods. I have heard rumors about poppy cultivation being illegal in Ukraine. A friend even told me a story about a babushka in village in L’viv Oblast that was arrested for nurturing poppies in her kitchen garden. (Pray tell, dear Pickle Project readers, if you know about the legality of poppy cultivation in Ukraine). (Incidentally, through my meticulous web research, I also learned that, indeed, eating large quantities of poppy seeds will contribute to a false positive in drug testing, as was confirmed on an episode of the show MythBusters.)
For more interesting poppy reading, check out Gabriella Gershenson’s Saveur article Flower Power, a range of articles about the interesting poppy research happening at the University of Calgary and tips on poppy seed cultivation at the Washington State University.