BEIJING — On a stroll through the aisles of the wholesale spice market in southeast Beijing, visitors inhale the fragrances wafting from the burlap sacks of cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel, turmeric and a dazzling selection of peppers, from the tingling to the deadly hot.
A vendor looks up and smiles in anticipation of a sale.
"What are you looking for?"
When she is told poppy seedpods, the smile vanishes. "Mei you," she snaps — "Don't have" — and abruptly turns away.
Forget about MSG. The most controversial spice these days in China is the pingpong-ball-sized pod that contains poppy seeds.
For years, some chefs here have been slipping a powder of ground pods into certain meat and seafood dishes under the impression that it makes the food tastier and has an addictive quality that brings customers back for more.
But authorities say the poppy pods are a dangerous opiate and have launched a crackdown amid an overall tightening of food safety regulations. The pods — or more commonly a powder made from ground pods — have vanished from spice markets, where they used to sell for about $70 a pound.
Last week, 24 people in Shanghai were indicted on a range of food safety charges that included adding poppy pods to food. Prosecutors in particular cited a restaurant that they said had been adding the banned poppy powder to steamed crayfish.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, an investigative report this month said the city's food and drug administration had conducted spot checks of 70 restaurants and found two where the poppy was added.
The government's crackdown is part of a larger campaign against illegal food additives, such as melamine, which caused a scandal when it was added to milk powder.
In May, the Supreme People's Court issued an interpretation saying that violators could potentially receive prison sentences of up to five years for spiking food with poppy seed shells. So far, it appears that restaurants caught using the spice have been penalized only with fines.
"This is not like MSG," said Pan Siyi, dean of the school of food science and technology at the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. "The poppy is considered to be a drug."
Pan says the seedpod of the poppy contains more opiates than the seeds themselves.
"Added to food, it can enhance the flavor and aroma," he said. "It can give you a better appetite and make you more alert and excited. I think it is an exaggeration to say you'll get addicted from eating it once or twice, but you could become dependent if you were eating a large quantity over a long period of time."
Chinese cooks add the illegal spice to all types of cuisine, depending on the region. In Shanghai, it is often crayfish; in the Guangzhou case, it was detected in the cooking broth used for a popular Cantonese stewed meat.
In northern China, the poppy pod — referred to as da yan ke, or "big smoky shells," after the slang for opium — is added to hot pot, the spicy stew cooked at the table.
Connoisseurs say it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the flavorful dish.
"Ah, the aroma and the taste are very flavorful," said Xin Jing, a 45-year-old businessman from the northern city of Harbin, who was shopping at the spice market in Beijing. "It is hard to describe. Maybe a little like sesame. Once you have tasted it, you want to eat more."
Xin says the first few times he had hot pot with the poppy additive he didn't realize what it was that made the food so delicious. Indeed, in several cases, restaurants have gotten busted only when their customers later got positive readings in drug tests.
In March, two young women working in a karaoke club in Wuxi, near Shanghai, led police to a crayfish restaurant where they had dined at 1 a.m. after work. Sure enough, the crayfish tested positive for opiates.
Upon questioning, the chef admitted that he had gotten poppy seedpods from his sister, who worked at a traditional medicine clinic, and added them to the cooking oil. The restaurant had opened just 18 days before and had already generated more than $9,000 in revenue, according to a report in the Yangzi Evening News.
Until recently, poppy pods could be found in wholesale spice markets in Beijing and elsewhere in China, although they were often kept out of public view and sold only to trusted customers. According a report in the Beijing Times, people usually didn't even name the spice but asked only for "that stuff."
At the Dayanglu market in Beijing, vendors flinched when asked about the spice that could not be mentioned by name. Each insisted that he or she had never sold it. When asked how she knew about it, one vendor said, "I saw a report about it on TV."
"It has always been illegal, but recently they have gotten very strict," said Wang Jinzhi, one of the few vendors willing to speak about poppy pods. "Nobody would dare sell it now."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times