Fair is not always lovely. Some things are dark and beautiful. Like the latest trend of black food. If a little black dress (LBD) is a fashion must-have, then of late, a little black dish is a culinary must-have. Earlier a fashion statement, black is now a gourmet statement, with chefs and food bloggers across the world creating stunning dishes using charcoal.
Of course, none of the fashion diktats came to mind when I was offered a beautiful black coconut panna cotta with berry compote encased in a mousse made of yoghurt flavoured with black currant and lemon zest by Chef Francis Fernandes at ITC Kakatiya in Hyderabad. I don’t know if black magic actually exists, but this dessert is definitely magical in appearance and it occupied pride of place in my Instagram feed.
A few days later, following my post, a chef sent me a box of macarons. No prizes for guessing the colour. Black! Turned out, I was part of a food trend that was and is still taking the baking world by storm. Activated charcoal is a huge part of the patisserie industry these days, and is widely being used to add a dark hue to foods. The list of benefits and uses of the ingredient is rather long. Besides its several medicinal uses, it is also used in food as a natural dye. The result: black ice cream, black desserts, black breads, burgers, pastas and black croissants as well.
For instance, Burger King Japan crossed over to the dark side when it introduced its Kuro Pearl Burger a couple of years ago. This curious creation came with black cheese and a black bun, with squid ink in the sauce. Last year, Melbourne bakery Lune introduced a squid ink and cumin croissant, while a restaurant in France went a step ahead and served its diners some stunning black puffed rice crackers with squid ink as entrée. Not to forget black buns for hotdogs, and New York-based Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream introducing a new flavour called coconut ash.
Celebrity chef Kunal Kapur says, “I have tried using charcoal in smoothies, combined it with chyawanprash , used it as a dust to garnish, made kali rang ki puri , and paratha .” Kapur’s observation is that the trend is at a nascent stage in India, but “I’ve spotted quite a lot of it on my travels to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. Even in Germany, it is widely used to upturn the attractive factor of foods on display”.
Activated charcoal is a by-product of burning coconut shells, wood, or other plant materials. If that sounds dangerous to eat, don’t worry: charcoal made from coconut is harmless.
The trend has caught on with home bakers as well, with black food of all shapes and sizes sweeping through Instagram. Lisa Clayton, a home baker in Los Angeles, California, is keeping herself busy with creative projects. Her Instagram posts of sour dough breads with charcoal are as beautiful as paintings. She started by experimenting with charcoal powder about a year ago. “I love making visually beautiful food, and adding colour is a great way to do this; but I stay away from artificial dyes. I love charcoal powder because you only need a small amount to achieve an intense black colour, and because it is a powder, it is easy to incorporate into things like dough or batter, without having to adjust the water content.
Also, natural food colouring often consists of extracts of or powdered forms of fruit or vegetables; for example, spinach for green or beetroot for red. However, not only do these colours often not withstand baking at high temperatures, they also add flavour which may not always be desirable. Charcoal powder does not do these things,” she explains.
Chefs say black food on display doesn’t just make heads turn, it also opens an opportunity for interaction. “Their curiosity makes people get chatty, so it opens opportunity for a dialogue. This enables us to connect better. Black buns, naans , croissants and baguettes are well received,” says Chef Rakesh Singh of The Westin.
He doesn’t mind using food colour, but he says, when there is something so natural like activated charcoal, “why would I want to use chemicals? The ingredient isn’t easily available everywhere, so I pick them up on my trips abroad.”
In a bid to make his own charcoal, Chef Siddharth Kalyanram says he burnt a lot of vegetables. Onions, according to him, turned out well, so did potatoes. “The other vegetables were a disaster though,” he laughs, adding, “I experimented because I wanted to be sure of what I was using to achieve the black colour.”
The bottom line? It’s no miracle health ingredient, but it sure looks fun and Instagram-worthy!