Shanghai stew that's strangely addictive

SHANGHAI'S "hotpot" restaurants have come up with a recipe for success that has unsuspecting customers coming back for more. An investigation by the city's health authorities of 45 such eateries found that 11 of them had added a little extra something to the broth - opium poppy flowers, writes Teresa Poole.

The survey, reported in the city's main newspaper, the Wenhui Daily, said that customers eating the spiced-up hotpot would experience "numbness", feelings of incapacity and illness. While this might seem unlikely to tempt back customers, the newspaper claimed that the added special ingredient could prove addictive. Health officials refused to comment.

Hotpot is a traditional Chinese dish, along the lines of fondue, where diners cook pieces of meat and vegetables in a central boiling vat of spiced broth or oil. Giving hotpot customers a little more than they ordered is not new, but the paper said the test results showed a higher proportion of opium poppy contamination than in recent years. Anyone out in search of a buzz would have a lot of eating to do, however, as only 15 of the 82 dishes tested by the authorities were found to contain the illicit poppies.

In a country which regularly still lambasts Britain and other "imperialist powers" for the 19th century Opium Wars, it is all rather embarrassing. Growing opium poppies is banned, and every year teams are sent out to investigate illegal poppy planting.

After 1949, the Chinese government stamped out opium dens and virtually rid the country of drugs, but in recent years the problem has returned with a vengeance. China now has more than half a million registered drug addicts, and last year police confiscated 2.5 tonnes of heroin and 325 kilos of opium. The statistics do not record how much hotpot was seized. A recent anti-drugs campaign had the theme: "Yes to Life, No to Drugs." Shanghai may soon have a new one: "Yes to Hot Pot, No to Opium."