So I was at this fancy restaurant in Italy, being hosted by a well-known chef and he promised me that the pasta dish of the evening will have me wonder if I’ve had my seafood pasta right all this while. Not knowing what to expect, I turned up at a pre-ordered table and was served an array of dishes, some of them traditional Italian seafood dishes, all of them quite delectable and perfectly balanced, well almost; I will come to the unbalanced part in a bit. I remember having the wonderfully flavoursome pasta, with shrimps and bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) and yet I was wondering all the while, till my last course, about something, couldn’t quite put my finger on that, but something was amiss in the whole experience. The menu was not random and was definitely following a pattern, but what?
Soon, as I was served the dessert — a beautifully light black sesame panna cotta served with blackberries — that I got it.
I recalled that the pasta, a couple of courses earlier, had something special about it. Apart from the spot-on texture and the freshness of the ‘sea’ flavour, there was something else. The pasta was pitch black! So were the other dishes being served one after the other. The flavours were as colourful as they could be but the colour was monotonous, literally, since the only tone of colour reflecting in all the dishes was black. So starting from the black coconut mojito (coloured with coconut ash), right up to the black latte (coloured with activated charcoal), and everything in between (even the bread rolls were black), the ‘Gothic’ theme menu was black. And delicious. I guess when the chefs preparing the menu would have asked for the colour theme for the menu, they were quoted Henry Ford, who is supposed to have said famously, ‘You can have it in any colour as long as it is black!”
In a world tired of changing food trends at ‘Insta’ pace, the trend of black foods has caught up rather significantly over the last couple of years and with all empirical pieces of evidence, black is here to stay. While it is not easy to fathom how a monochromatic dish will be any match for the not-so-distant trend of super-abundant multicoloured foods, it is a reality that the colour black signifies elegance, grace and restraint, all of which attributes are brought on to the dishes that carry the colour. While the niche and the super expensive caviar and the humble kala til is what most people have heard of, there are various other ebony ingredients that chefs are using to bridge the 50 shades of grey as it were. Let us find a little bit more about the various ingredients that appear black to the eye but offer a colourful perspective into one of the most intriguing culinary trends that have shaken the colour-crazy Instagrammers out of their slumber and had them adjust their edit filters while at the same time offering to the colour-weary diner something sombre, enticing and, to a certain level, mysterious. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s enter the rivetting dark world of black foods and find out more about the various food items that are black and see why some of them are prized while some are roundly underrated and uncommon.
The first time I saw one of my fellow chefs post an image of the Kadaknath chicken, I thought it was a mistake or a prank. On further research, I found that the chicken, absolutely dark in colour, native to India, is way more nutritious compared to the regular fowl and yet a very few people have ever heard of it, let alone seeing or tasting it. Aptly known as kali masi (black meat) by the Adivasis of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where it is chiefly reared, Kadaknath is also the only animal to have gotten a Geographical Indication (GI) tag by the government of India. Although the chicken has been reared and consumed for the last many centuries, it shot into limelight when the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) suggested its players to include Kadaknath chicken in their diets for its low cholesterol and fat and high protein, iron and amino acids content. I have myself tried this delicacy a few times and can tell you, it is an indescribable, meaty taste with a chewy texture that is perfect for all types of cuisines and dishes.
I have mentioned above how I was enticed by the black pasta that I had in Italy, I later found out that it uses squid ink (or cuttlefish ink) to make it black and also impart an intense fish flavour to the pasta dough. Also known as the ‘cephalopod’ ink, squid ink is a liquid compound secreted by squids and cuttlefish to ward off their predators. When used in pasta, think of it like the seafood being ‘inside’ your spaghetti than just being cooked with it. While many consider squid ink as a healthy superfood, a term that I don’t use casually, it is true that squid ink certainly contains high amounts of many amino acids, iron, minerals and melanin that give the ink its dark colour. As well as that, squid ink offers the chefs a viable alternative to salty and fatty additives, since being high in glutamic acid content, it gives a rich, full-bodied and ‘umami’ flavour to a dish without the nutritional downsides of the other additives used to create similar flavour profiles. Right from pasta and risottos to burger buns and beer batters, the squid ink is allowing the food connoisseurs to have their favourite foods in mysterious hues of dark that are satisfying and intriguing at the same time and yes, very, very Instagram friendly.
Also known as activated carbon, activated charcoal can be said to be among the foremost ingredients behind the awe-inspiring trend of black foods that has got the world in a frenzy. If you’ve ever seen a black ice cream or latte, lemonade or a waffle, most likely it is the result of the use of activated charcoal.
Known for its health benefits as well as being a magnet for toxins — if applied topically to skin, activated charcoal is said to absorb up to 1,000 times its own weight! An integral part of various skin products and medicines, activated charcoal is among the hot new ingredients that people are using across cuisines and food courses to give those a delicious flavour, a rich, intriguing (okay, sometimes shocking but that’s mostly the first time you see it!) colour and health benefits. Fundamentally, activated charcoal is pure carbon that is produced through a specific process of burning wood, bamboo or coconut husks without oxygen to create char, which is then ‘activated’ so that it has small, low-volume pores that are capable of imparting colour to the product it is mixed with. It is tasteless and odourless and is therefore a suitable dying ingredient for all kinds of foods. In fact I remember having Carbon Pao, Carbon Bhaji in one of the swank restaurants of Mumbai that had taken the staple Mumbaiya Pao Bhaji to a Gothic high with the use of activated charcoal. The dish took the whole city by storm.
For a rice-eating country, it’s surprising how little we know about the various types of rice available to us. True, there are hundreds of types of rice that are prevalent, but most are white and fundamentally quite similar to one another. Enter black rice. Also known as the ‘forbidden rice’ or the emperor’s rice since in the past, in China, the consumption of this rice was forbidden for the common folk and allowed only for the royalty. Mostly grown in Asian countries like China, Indonesia, Myanmar and northeastern India — it’s known as chak hao in Manipur — this pitch-black rice contains high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which gives it its colour as well as makes it extremely nutritive. So much so that black rice is widely considered a superfood and is a favourite of health aficionados the world over and known especially for its benefits for weight loss, diabetes control and a natural detoxifier. Taste-wise, the rice is unlike the normal rice and is quite nutty, earthy and sweet and is most suited to making desserts and sweet dishes. The Indian government has also identified black rice as a worthy agricultural produce that is earmarked for promotional activities for its immense export potential.
Another novel culinary ingredient, black garlic, is most prized for its unique citrusy and syrupy taste and texture, something completely removed from the regular garlic which is pungent and aromatic. Unlike the rice which is an entirely different species, black garlic is produced by heating whole cloves of normal garlic bulbs over several weeks in a controlled environment with humidity ranging from 80-90 per cent and temperature between 60°C and 90°C. Due to this treatment, the garlic loses its sharpness and texture and results in a much softer, sweet and sticky texture, almost like dates or tamarind. Culinarily, this opens lots of avenues for chefs for use in dishes that require garlic but not the sharpness or the astringency or the ones where garlic is required in the uncooked form such as salads, bruschettas or sandwich spreads.
Vikas Kumar is the executive chef of Flurys. You can reach him at email@example.com