I was recently in Los Angeles and had a spectacular, complex dinner at the two-Michelin-star restaurant Vespertine. The chef, Jordan Kahn, is determined to break the tradition of regular restaurant dining, turning it into an otherworldly Zen experience. My favourite dish of 15 came in a black vessel covered in inky, burnt onion ash. Buried below was a pristine white scallop and a sliver of bone marrow, which, once revealed, looked like the moon was rising out of the blackness.
It was extraordinary. And it was right on trend, as black-coloured foods – everything from ice cream to pasta – are popping up on more and more menus. Not only do black-coloured foods have loads of antioxidants, they impart umami flavour.
Legend has it black rice, also known as “forbidden rice,” was once reserved for the Chinese emperor. These days we can all enjoy its nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture. The distinctive purplish black colour comes from its high antioxidant levels. A wonderful black rice called “rice berries” is grown exclusively in northern Thailand, and its sweet nutty flavour is good with all types of cuisine. One example: It makes an outstanding rice pudding served with mangoes on top. Rinse 1½ cups black rice, then cover with 1½ cups coconut milk and 3 cups water. And ⅓ cup coconut or brown sugar and a good pinch of salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed, and rice is slightly chewy, about 1 hour or more.
Black garlic is regular garlic that has been aged: Thanks to the Maillard reaction – the breakdown of protein and sugars to produce an umami flavour – it has hints of earthiness and a slight sweetness. Use the cloves anywhere you would use roasted garlic to add depth to dishes. It is frequently available in Chinatown, but you can make your own by cooking whole heads of unpeeled garlic (don’t let them touch) in a rice cooker on warm for two to three weeks (the only issue with this is that the house smells of gently cooking garlic). Purée them with some mayonnaise for an outrageous egg salad.
Edible ash is made from charred, dried vegetables. It has a smoky, slightly bitter flavour that pairs well with rich foods. To make it, roast the vegetables until a deep brown colour, practically burnt, cool, dehydrate then crumble (use scraps such as leek greens or carrot tops to reduce food waste). Sprinkle over a finished dish for striking presentation.
Nori is a form of dried, toasted seaweed that comes in papery sheets. It is a key sushi ingredient and can also be added to soups, noodles and rice bowls. Fried, it makes a crispy garnish. Low in calories, no-carb nori crackers are excellent with simple spreads.
Squid ink pasta
To make this pasta, squid ink is incorporated into the dough as it is made. The resulting noodles are deeply black and make for a striking presentation when served with white or pink seafood.
Black ice cream and more
Black ice cream became a phenomenon after popping up on Instagram a couple of years ago. It is made by colouring vanilla ice cream with activated charcoal, which is processed at very high temperatures then cooled and crumbled (it is not the same as charcoal briquettes). You can buy it in capsule form; break them open and you can colour most anything. I’ve seen it in drinking water at restaurants, and black lattes are a new trend.
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