Poppy seed is an oilseed obtained from the poppy (Papaver somniferum). The tiny kidney-shaped seeds have been harvested from dried seed pods by various civilizations for thousands of years. It is still widely used in many countries, especially in Central Europe, where it is legally grown and sold in shops. The seeds are used, whole or ground, as an ingredient in many foods – especially in pastry and bread, and they are pressed to yield poppy seed oil.
The poppy seed is mentioned in ancient medical texts from many civilizations. For instance, the Egyptian papyrus scroll named Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BC, lists poppy seed as a sedative. The Minoan civilization (approximately 2700 to 1450 BC), a Bronze Age civilization which arose on the island of Crete, cultivated poppies for their seed, and used a milk, opium and honey mixture to calm crying babies. The Sumerians are another civilization that are known to have grown poppy seeds. Poppy seeds have long been used as a folk remedy to aid sleeping, promote fertility and wealth, and even to provide supposed magical powers of invisibility.
Poppy seeds are highly nutritious and less allergenic than many other seeds and nuts. Allergy (type 1 hypersensitivity) to poppy seeds is very rare, but has been reported and can cause anaphylaxis.
The seeds of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) are widely consumed in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The sugared, milled mature seeds are eaten with pasta, or they are boiled with milk and used as filling or topping on various kinds of sweet pastry. Milling of mature seeds is carried out either industrially or at home, where it is generally done with a manual poppy seed mill.
Poppy seeds are widely used in Austrian, Croatian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Turkish and Ukrainian cuisines.
Whole poppy seeds are widely used as a spice and decoration in and on top of many baked goods. In North America they are used in and on many food items such as poppy seed muffins, rusk, bagels (like the Montreal-style bagel), bialys, and cakes such as sponge cake. Across Europe, buns and soft white bread pastries are often sprinkled on top with black and white poppy seeds (for example Cozonac, Kalach Kolache and, Kołacz).
Poppy seeds are used in various German breads and desserts as well as in Polish cuisine. Like sesame seeds, poppy seeds are often added to hamburger buns. Le Snak is a food product made by Uncle Toby’s of New Zealand, consisting of three poppy-seed crackers and a portion of semi-solid cheese.
The states of former Yugoslavia (notably Macedonia and Serbia, but also Croatia and Bosnia) have a long tradition of preparing poppy seed pastry (strudel, baklava, pajgle) and dishes (pasta with poppy seeds).
In Poland, Lithuania and Eastern Slovakia, a traditional dessert is prepared for the Kūčios (Christmas Eve) dinner from poppy seeds. They are ground and mixed with water or milk; round yeast biscuits (kūčiukai in Lithuanian; opekance or bobalky in Slovak) are soaked in the resulting poppy seed ‘milk’ (poppy milk) and served cold.
In Central Europe, poppy strudel is very popular, especially during Christmas. In Germany, Poland and countries belonging to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, poppy seed pastries called Mohnkuchen are often eaten around Christmas time.