Blackened food is still the new black

Charcoal bucatini, smoked mushroom pancetta, vegan 'egg' yolk and plant-based parmesan at Mark and Vinny's Spaghetti and ...
Charcoal bucatini, smoked mushroom pancetta, vegan 'egg' yolk and plant-based parmesan at Mark and Vinny's Spaghetti and Spritz in Sydney. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Black-hued food and drink has something rainbow bagels and unicorn lattes don't: longevity. Perhaps it's because squid ink and charcoal were used to colour food before Instagram existed. Maybe it's their associated health benefits, or the shock value of something that looks burnt. Whatever the reason, blackened food still lures us to the dark side.

Restaurants and cafes

Food blackened by squid ink and charcoal has well and truly trickled down to cafes. Melbourne's Kettle Black and White Mojo are known for inky breakfast buns, as is Chimichuri in Sydney, thanks to its black eggs benny. Licorice bread is also a staple during brunch service at Yellow in Sydney.

Dani Walters, co-owner of new Melbourne cafe Cornerstone of Northcote incorporates charcoal into waffles and house lemonade because of its health benefits.

"We focus on superfoods and charcoal helps to block out the baddies and cleanse your system if you've eaten something you shouldn't," she says.

As for restaurants, scroll through Ester's Instagram and you'll see chef Mat Lindsay's work in progress: an octopus the colour of midnight.

 

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At Jerry Mai's Vietnamese restaurant in Melbourne, Annam, nuggets of cuttlefish in charcoal batter arrive on a black plate.

"We've had a couple of customers say, 'That's not right, there's something wrong here,' but when you bite into it there's this beautiful white flesh," says Mai.

Black garlic

Frank Camorra has been using black garlic at MoVida since 2009, but it has been popular in Asia for much longer (apparently it reduces cholesterol and the occurrence of cancer). The soft, spreadable garlic is caramelised to the point of candy sweetness and made by heating white garlic for 30 days, during which it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which gives browned food a distinctive umami flavour.

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It's on menus from Maha to Matteo's and Bottega to Bennelong, but Lee Dore, general manager of Tolga Estate, says black garlic is still new to retail.

"We sell 60 to 70 kilograms a month to food service … The retail market is very different. Only one or two out of every 10 people I speak to knows what it is," he says.

At home, Dore suggests using it in place of white garlic in pasta, sauces, purees and salads.

Black garlic tonkotsu ramen at Ramen O San in Sydney.

Black garlic tonkotsu ramen at Ramen O San in Sydney. Photo: Brianne Makin

Asia v Italy

Asia has led the charge on black food with century eggs, silkie chickens, vinegar and sesame. On April 14, South Korea even celebrates Black Day, a reaction against Valentine's Day for singles during which they wear black clothes and eat black food.

You can find black garlic ramen at Yakasa Ramen and Ramen O San in Sydney and Fukuryu Ramen in Melbourne, while Secret Kitchen has squid-ink buns filled with sea cucumber and foie gras and Let's Do Yum Cha food trucks dye their fluffy pork buns black.

It's more common in pasta dishes, such as Tipo 00's tagliolini al nero in Melbourne and Sydney's Olio, which serves squid ink spaghetti with spanner crab and pork 'nduja.

Vegans are also catered for in Melbourne with Smith & Daughters' black rice risotto special and at Matcha Mylkbar, where charcoal bucatini carbonara with a vegan egg yolk makes the odd appearance, but is a permanent fixture at Mark + Vinny's in Sydney.

Sweet treats

Black sesame soft-serve is as much about photo opportunities as taste, with stores like Aqua S capitalising on people letting their cameras eat first. Pastries are no exception, with shiny black numbers from Agathe Patisserie in Melbourne and Sydney's Textbook Patisserie.

Clifford Luu from cakes by Cliff started designing black cakes for clients, as well as his 228,000 Instagram followers, a few years ago.

 

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"Traditionally black is a very hard colour to use without compromising the taste or the actual colour of your mouth," says Luu, who paints the exterior of his cakes with Edible Art Paint and reserves the centre for flavour. "I make them for twenty-firsts and for bolder, more modern couples, generally to match an invitation or a theme."