Blue Poppy seeds are considered ‘European’ poppy seeds because they are the kind seen most often on Western breads, bagels and in confectionery. White poppy seeds are often referred to as ‘Indian’, ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Asian’ since they are featured in these cuisines. There is actually very little difference in flavour between the two, so usage is more a question of aesthetics or availability.

Papaver somniferum is also the opium poppy, native to the Middle East and now grown in China, Indo-China, India and Afghanistan. An inert variety grows wild and is also cultivated in Europe and North America. The plant’s species name, somniferum, means ‘sleep inducing’ and it is this narcotic effect that has provided so much incentive to its cultivation.

The oriental poppy yields much opium, and it is grown expressly for this lucrative purpose. The Western plants yield little opium and the latex that provides the drug is absent by the time the flower ripens. Poppy seeds of culinary use have none of the alkaloids that comprise the narcotic. Opium was known medically to the ancient Egyptians and the classical civilisations. The intrigues of the oriental opium warlords have been notorious for centuries.

Opium has been connected with literature since the days of Coleridge (1772-1834) who wrote under the influence of laudanum, a tincture of opium (given even to babies in those days) and Baudelaire (1821-1867), an active member of the Hashish Club, admits gaining inspiration from it in Les Paradis Artificiels.

Spice Description

Poppy seeds are like tiny hard grains. The Western type is slate blue; the Indian type, off-white. Both are kidney-shaped. The blue seeds average 1mm (.O4in) in length, while the white seeds are somewhat smaller. They are similar in flavour and texture and their uses are interchangeable. The seeds mature in a capsule left after the flower fades. They are widely available in a dried form. Bouquet: A mild sweetish aroma which is brought out by roasting or baking. Flavour: Mild until heated, then it becomes nutty, with sweet-spicy under-tones. Hotness Scale: 0

Preparation and Storage

Poppy seed is very hard to grind. If you do not have a special poppy seed grinder, first lightly roast the seeds and use a pestle and mortar. They can be used either whole or crushed in cooking and bakery. When using them with uncooked food, such as salads, roast them lightly first, as this strengthens their flavour and aroma. When poppy seeds are used for pastries, they are covered with boiling water and allowed to stand for one to three hours before grinding.

Culinary Uses

In the West, the blue poppy seeds are used principally in confectionery and in baking. Like several other spicy seeds, they are sprinkled on breads and buns and used in a variety of Western cakes and pastries, for example in poppy cakes, strudels and Danish pastries. Poppy seed complements honey spread an bread, giving a nice contrast of texture.

Fried in butter, poppy seed can be added to noodles or pasta. It flavours vegetables and their accompanying sauces, especially asparagus and root vegetables. Sprinkled into coleslaw, the seeds give a contrast of both colour and texture. They are used to top creamed potatoes and au gratin dishes, and sometimes appear in fish dishes.

In Middle Eastern and Jewish cookery, poppy seeds go on breads and in cakes and candies and are often seen studding pretzels. In the East the white poppy seed is generally used. Chappatis (Indian whole-wheat griddle breads) may contain it, and certain curries and varieties of mixed spice contain a small proportion of poppy. Its function in curry is partially to thicken the liquid and add texture. The whole seeds are used in chutneys.

The oil expressed from poppy seeds, which the French call oillette, is used for culinary purposes and is an acceptable substitute for olive oil. The European poppy variety, Papaver rhoeas, is used to make a syrup similar to that of rose hips, which is occasionally used in soups. Being hard to grind, it requires a special machine. These hand-turned grinders are common in Austria and Germany but seldom seen in elsewhere.

Poppy syrup is made from the flowers of the corn poppy or rose poppy, (P. rhoeas). It is used in cordials. This variety is also known as ‘headache’ – to smell it causes momentary dizziness. It is also the poppy of Remembrance Day which is the emblem of the soldiers who perished in the Great War. Indian poppy seed – ‘mawseed’ – is a food for birds.

Poppy Seed Substitute

For sweet or savory recipes the best substitute would likely be sesame seeds though some recipes are based on the poppy flavor and consistency so would  best be rethought.

Health Benefits of Poppy Seeds

Western poppy syrup is an anodyne and expectorant. Eastern poppy is an anodyne and narcotic. Cough mixtures and syrups are also made from this variety, which is further used as a poultice with chamomile. An infusion of seeds is said to help ear and tooth ache. The seeds have appetising qualities. The use and dangers of poppy plant derivatives, such as morphine, heroin and codeine, are well known. In the Middle Ages an anaesthetic was produced called ‘the soporific sponge’, an infusion made of poppy, mandrake, hemlock and ivy that was poured over a sponge and held under the patient’s nostrils.

Plant Description and Varieties

n annual, reaching 30-120cm (1-4ft), the lobed leaves have a blue tinge. The flowers are white to purple; those of Papaver rhoeas, red. They grow up to 12cm (5in) in diameter. The Eastern wild varieties usually sport lilaccoloured blooms. Many wild species occur, such as the Corn Poppy (P. rhoeas), often seen in cornfields. Some varieties are grown ornamentally. When the flowers fade, a capsule remains, rounded and crowned with a star-shaped stigma. On drying, it splits, casting out myriad seeds in the winds. There are nearly one million seeds to the pound (0.5kg). Wild varieties flower from June to August, cultivated varieties in July. Aspect: Sunny. Soil: Loamy. Sow: Early spring, rows 30cm (I ft) apart. Poppies thrive with much watering, but must be well weeded. Papaver somniferum may not be grown in Britain or the United States without a permit.

Other Names

Mawseed, Opium Poppy

French: pavot somnifre, oeillette
German: Mohn (samen)
Italian: papavero
Spanish: adormidera, amapola (Poppy)
Indian: kus-kus, khus(h)-khus(h), cus-cus
Tamil: kasakasa

Scientific Name

Papaver somniferum
fam Papaveraceae

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