It isn’t actually black; it’s more of a slate-grey, but for some reason, we usually say that poppy seeds are “black.” I always keep a small bag on hand for one recipe and one recipe only—I am sort of narrow-minded when it comes to poppy seeds—I only use them in citrus salad dressing, and then only when I am making a spinach salad with almonds and strawberries or mandarin oranges.
I need to get out of this rut!
The edible poppy seed comes from Papaver somniferum, the same poppy that opiates are extracted from. Other poppies such as Californian and Oriental do not produce the drug. Somniferum loosely translates to “sleep-bringing.”
But let’s stick to cooking.
The tiny seed has been used for cooking since civilization began. This self-seeding annual prefers temperate climates, and is thought to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is today. It became a common ingredient in the cuisine of Eastern European countries and is still found most often in foods from Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, and Turkey.
Poppy seeds are considered a spice. They have a nutty, slightly-sweet flavour that goes well with citrus flavours like lemon or orange. This may be why it seems that wherever you find a lemon muffin, you will likely find poppy seeds. Like most seeds and nuts, toasting them intensifies their flavour. Crushing them in a mortar releases more flavour.
They are often used in conjunction with other nuts such as pecans or walnuts, raisins, honey, and cinnamon. Crushed and cooked in milk with these other ingredients, poppy seeds make a delicious sweetmeat filling for phyllo pastry. Austrian strudels and Turkish baklava are just two familiar poppy seed desserts. There is a strong ethnic association with the seed, resulting in what we think of as “European deli” food: braided breads, bagels, and Danish pastries.
In European cuisines, the seeds are used as seasoning for vegetables like cabbage, green beans, potatoes, and carrots, as well as for noodles in cream sauces; even deviled eggs.
The seeds also add crunchy texture and colour to food. “Polka dot chicken” is one recipe I found for chicken in a poppy seed cream sauce.
Because of its high oil content, the seeds should be stored in the fridge. Once upon a time, the seeds were pressed for this oil, a high-quality unsaturated oil, probably similar in flavour to grapeseed oil. You won’t find this oil easily now. The large number of poppies required to produce a small amount of oil makes it impractical, and growing fields of opium poppies is illegal in most countries.
So now, back to this narcotic issue. Anyone who is a fan of Seinfeld will recall the episode where Elaine’s boss, Mr. Peterman, wants to take her to Africa, but she fails her urine test; it comes up positive for opium…twice.
“Mr. Peterman, I don’t know what’s going on here. I am not addicted to anything.”
“Oh, Elaine. The toll road of denial is a long and dangerous one. The Price? Your soul. Oh, and by the way, you have til 5:00 to clear out your desk. You’re fired.”
She is baffled, until some man at the coffee counter sitting next to her tells her it is because of the poppy seeds in the muffins she eats all the time. After she swears off the muffins (it takes up to 48 hours to clear the system), she eats someone’s left-over chicken dish which turns out to have poppy seeds in it. What did she think the tiny black specks were? Only on Seinfeld!
And so, in true Seinfeldian silliness, Elaine asks Jerry’s mother to donate urine.
The next day, her boss informs her that while she is free of opium and can have her job back, she still can’t go to Africa. It seems that she has the metabolism of a 68-year old menopausal woman, and may have osteoporosis.
Opium and its derivatives are extracted from a brown sap found in unripened seed pods. The seeds we eat are fully ripe, and do not contain any active narcotic. However, they do contain enough residual opiates to cause a false-positive urine test. Anyone taking a drug test is warned to stay away from anything containing poppy seeds.
When researching poppies, it is hard to avoid reading about the devastation caused by opium. From the time of Hippocrates, it was known for its medicinal and narcotic properties. Laudanum, a mixture of opium, sherry, and herbs, became a popular cure-all in the late 1600s, soothing everything from women’s complaints to colicky babies.
As the popularity of recreational opium smoking increased, and with creation of more powerful and addictive derivatives, the drug became increasingly a money-maker. When morphine was isolated from opium in the early 1800s, abuse of the drug became insidious. It caused wars and became associated with violence and death.
By the early 1900s, heroin addiction had become so prevalent, that opium was banned in the U.S. In an effort to prevent the production of domestic opium, many governments made it illegal to grow the poppy. It became illegal to possess anything but the ripe seeds. The edible seeds we buy come from licensed fields, often from Holland.
It takes a lot of poppies to make the drugs. The intent of the law is not to prosecute gardeners who love a patch or two of the beautiful poppies. I don’t believe Canada has a ban in place, but I am sure a field of opium poppies would raise some questions.
You can harvest your own seeds to eat, but most people prefer to let the beautiful plant re-seed for the next year. I am not sure if the seeds you purchase in the spice aisle can be germinated; I’ll experiment with that one.
Here is one final fact about poppy seeds, one of almost Seinfeldian nothing-ness: There are approximately 900,000 poppy seeds in a pound. Get out!
I sometimes worry that someone might be monitoring my computer. There was the time I was doing research on a book about Freemasons, and got into some pretty weird sites. I was afraid to go near my computer for days. You can imagine what kinds of sites you run into when you are researching poppy seeds. I hit on one that sells clean urine samples. I don’t know what for; the disclaimer says quite clearly that they are not to be used for any illegal purposes, but the site also gives guidelines for potential donors as to what they should stay away from, including poppy seeds, to prevent their urine from giving false-positive drug test results. Hmmmm!