Everyone knows that poppy seeds come from the opium poppy, papaver somniferum. Opium comes from milking the unripe seed pods. These seeds come from fully ripened pods, and while all parts of the plant can carry the opium alkaloids, the seeds contain an extremely low level of opiates and are safe for consumption. That said, be aware that if international travel or a drug test is on the horizon, one should avoid any foods with poppy seeds, as they can cause a false positive reading.
The opium poppy is native to the Middle Eastern lands and has been known and used for nearly 5,000 years. Poppy seeds have long been known as a remedy to aid sleep, as well as promoting fertility. The seeds are oily, and some cultures grind them to a paste and apply to the skin as a moisturizer. The seeds are also pressed to form poppy seed oil, for culinary, industrial and medicinal uses. There are two main types of seeds. Black seeds, actually a slate blue in color, are most known as European, because they are the kind used most in western breads and pastries. White seeds are known generally as Indian, Middle Eastern or Asian, as they are more often used in these cuisines. Both blue and white seeds come from the same plant, though the white seeds come from a white flowering cultivar.
In the Western parts of the world, black seeds are used mainly in pastries and confections, although they are also added to noodles or pasta and vegetable dishes. They are best known sprinkled on breads or buns, in poppy seed cakes, and Danish pastries. Lemon poppy seed cakes and muffins are extremely popular and delicious. Poppy seeds and honey are a great combination. Hamantash, well-known Jewish pastries, are traditional during Purim. I had the great pleasure of tasting these cookie-like treats. White seeds are most known in Indian and Asian cuisines, used ground as a thickener for curries and sauces. They are also used in some curry powder mixtures.
As my ethnic background is east central European, with my grandparents from Slovakia and what is now Serbia, I grew up enjoying poppy seed pastries. Most traditionally at Christmas time, my Slovakian grandmother made Kolach, a rich yeast dough rolled with a thick, sweet poppy seed filling. I have many fond memories of unrolling the pastry and eating small strips at a time, until reaching the center, where the filling was thickest. My Serbian grandmother made poppy seed strudel at any time of the year, but at Christmas she made Bobalky. I have seen Bobalky described in many ways, but hers was made with small bread balls, soaked in water, with ground poppy seeds and honey added in. These two variations of poppy seed desserts have meant Christmas to me since my earliest years.
Food memories are some of the strongest, and we carry lifelong loves of certain foods with us throughout our lives. For me, poppy seeds have been a food memory associated with family, convivial visits and sharing, laughter and gaiety, and bring back warm memories of so many wonderful Christmases gone by.
About The Author
My name is Chris Rawstern and I have been on a cooking and baking journey for 42 years. Many people have asked what A Harmony of Flavors means. Have you ever had a meal where the visual presentation was stunning, the smells were incredible, the taste was so remarkable that you ate slowly savoring every bite, wishing the experience would never end? Then you have experienced what a truly harmonious meal can be like.
My passion is to teach people how to create a Harmony of Flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own.
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