Alu-Posto


Don’t tell my children but I barely ate any vegetables when I was a kid. In fact, I barely ate any vegetables till I was in my twenties. The big exception was potatoes—and I guess technically potatoes may not even be vegetables. I ate potatoes in all forms, from simple alu-sheddho (boiled potatoes mashed with either ghee or sharp mustard oil and minced onion) to alu-parathas to alu-bhaja (fried potatoes of various sizes and textures) to alur torkari to alur dom. [Be patient, I’m almost done with this fascinating dietary autobiography.] A favourite dish, however, was alu-posto, a quintessential Bengali dish of potatoes cooked very simply with a few spices and poppy seed paste. Mild in flavour and somewhere between grainy and smooth in texture, the poppy seed paste (or posto) made this dish unlike anything else made in my mother’s kitchen and all through childhood it was a major comfort food. For whatever reason, I didn’t start making it in the US until relatively recently but now I make it often. I have not yet had any success in getting my own kids to eat it though: in a wry twist neither of them is particularly into potatoes except in French fry form, and one of them doesn’t even care very much for French fries. Meanwhile the missus and I both love potatoes. Who knows how these things work. Anyway, here is the recipe for alu-posto as it is made in my family.

I stress above that this is how it is made in our family because there’s no fixed recipe for the dish. Many cooks deploy nothing but kalo-jire/kalonji/nigella in the tempering; in our house it is made with panch phoron. Some cooks leave out onion and ginger altogether; in our house both are used. Some grind chillies with the poppy seeds; we don’t. Some use dried red chillies; we don’t. Some add fried onions at the end; in our house onions are added at the very beginning. Some don’t use haldi/turmeric at all; in our house we add a pinch. Try these variations and see which you like the best.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup white poppy seeds, coarsely ground in a spice/coffee grinder and made into a thick but pourable paste with about 3/4 cup water.
  • 1.5 lbs potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes.
  • 1 tspn panch phoron.
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced onion.
  • 1/2 tspn grated ginger.
  • 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder.
  • 2-4 green chillies, slit.
  • A pinch of sugar.
  • 2-3 tblspns mustard oil or failing that, grapeseed or similar.
  • 1/2 cup or so of water.

Preparation

  1. Heat 2-3 tblspns of mustard oil till just beginning to smoke and add the potatoes.
  2. Stir-fry the potatoes till half-cooked but don’t let them brown (keep ’em moving).
  3. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and heat the oil back up (add a little more oil if necessary).
  4. Add the panch phoron.
  5. As the seeds just begin to sizzle add the onion and grated ginger and saute for a few minutes.
  6. Return the potatoes to the pan and add the turmeric and salt and saute for a few more minutes.
  7. Add the poppy seed paste, sugar and two green chillies and mix in thoroughly.
  8. Saute till the potatoes are completely done. Add a bit of water from time to time to keep the poppy seed paste from sticking.
  9. Garnish with another slit green chilli or two if you like and serve with rice and dal.

Notes

  1. The poppy seeds used in this recipe are the white ones available in Indian groceries.
  2. You will need to add water as you go to keep the posto from sticking/scorching. But the final dish should not be runny at all. Bring it back to the consistency of a thick paste coating the potatoes.
  3. Don’t eat this if you need to take a drug test any time soon.
  4. Even in my veg-hating childhood I liked alu-posto so much that it functioned as a gateway to another vegetable that you might expect to be a hard sell for a vegetable-hating child: jhinge or ridge gourd. Jhinge-posto may be the even more classic posto dish in the Bengali repertoire. You can get ridge gourd in Indian groceries. It’s a bit of a hassle to peel. If you use it, do a 3:1 ratio of jhinge to potatoes and be prepared for the jhinge to give off a lot of moisture as it cooks.
  5. Ideally, this is eaten with steamed rice and dal (moog or mushoor) but it’s also very good with chapatis.

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