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China's official information agency has recently reported that restaurants across the country are regularly spiking their dishes with poppy shells and other opiate-rich derivatives. Lobster, noodle dishes and hot pot are the most common targets.|
The aim, according to experts, is to ensure repeat custom in a crowded hospitality market.
Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer, chef and the first westerner to train as a chef in the Szechuan Institute of High Cuisine in Chengdu, has had firsthand experience of the practice.
‘About 10 or 20 years ago I was in Szechuan and I went out with some friends to a town to visit some other people,’ says Dunlop. ‘They made hotpot for lunch, so we sat around in the kitchen around this bubbling cauldron of chillies and Szechuan pepper and we used our chopsticks to cook our own food.’
‘As the afternoon went on we just got more and more relaxed until everyone just felt drowsy. We all went and fell asleep on beds and sofas and I can still remember having this absolutely blissful sleep. When I woke up I went back into the kitchen and I noticed that there were poppy heads bobbing around in the broth.’
According to Dunlop, adding opium to food was banned in China in 2008, and a crackdown has all but ended the practice in large commercial restaurants. It’s still possible at small, family run restaurants, though, thanks to a lack of health and safety oversight.
‘A few months ago there was the tale of one man who failed a police drugs test,’ says Dunlop. ‘He hadn't taken any drugs and was completely mystified, and suddenly had this idea that it was the noodles he'd had at a small noodle shop for lunch.’
‘He persuaded some of his relatives to go back there and try some of the noodles too, and they then failed drug tests. It's definitely going on.’
There’s only one question left for the foodies out there: What does it taste like?
‘Under the assault of Szechuan pepper and chillies and black beans and all the other ingredients you wouldn't notice it,’ says Dunlop.
‘It's just another spice, but with a rather interesting effect.’