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Douglas Capraro Douglas Capraro

Why Some Chinese Food Is Addictive: Opium


Chinese authorities are concerned that some restaurants still mix opiates into their meals to hook customers, despite a 2008 ban on the practice.

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The “itis,” otherwise known as the urge to sleep immediately following a hearty meal, is not a condition unique to eating Chinese food. But as chef and food writer Fuschia Dunlop discovered after a hotpot luncheon in Szechuan, there is one ingredient in some Chinese eateries that may make you drowsier than most: opium.

China’s official information agency has recently reported that many restaurants around the country add opiate-rich derivatives such as poppy shells to their dishes to keep their customers coming back. The most common targets include lobster, hotpot, and noodle dishes. Dunlop is the first Westerner to study at Szechuan Institute of High Cuisine in Chengdu and she learned about this illicit cooking practice firsthand after a dining experience 10 to 20 years ago.

“As the afternoon went on we just got more and more relaxed until everyone just felt drowsy,” she said, “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.”

Although Dunlop says that this practice has all but ceased in big commercial restaurants following an official ban in 2008, opium-infused food remains an issue throughout China. Last September, a Chinese noodle vendor from the northern Shaanxi province was detained after admitting that he added powdered poppy plant to his dishes. This was confirmed after authorities drug tested a 26-year-old man who had just eaten at the restaurant.

When asked whether or not the actual taste of the opium is detectable, Dunlop said: “under the assault of Szechuan pepper and chillies and black beans and all the other ingredients you wouldn’t notice it.” China’s Huashangbao paper also reported that the chances of becoming a drug addict from eating opium hotpot, even over a long period of time, is highly unlikely.