Taste of black: animal- or plant-based food colors?

🖤 Black is chic.

🕶 Black is cool.

🎩 Black is always fashionable.

Now, black FOOD is the new black.

And if this hasn’t already been news to you…
There’s so much more black food besides Oreo cookies!*

While in many parts of the world, activated charcoal powder is a rising star among natural food colorants, South Korea is still blocking its journey to the peninsula because of health concerns. But Korea has its own “black food”. There’s technically no NEED for charcoal. [Who wants to eat charred wood anyways???😝] In fact, there exists a whole array of foods that can be considered black!

Let’s begin by looking at ingredients that color food black! In Korea, there are several traditional as well as recent techniques for doing so! Since there are plant-based and animal-based ingredients, which each have a distinct taste and texture, a direct comparison helps you distinguishing them. Apart from that, some foods are named “black food” because of their original color. Cooking with black-colored ingredients does not necessary result in black-colored food, but their Korean name denotes them as traditionally black food regardless.

Korean ingredients used to dye food black

Regular sesame seeds (raw), roasted sesame seeds and roasted black sesame seeds.

⬛️ Black Sesame 흑임자 ♣️

First and foremost, there is black sesame. Sesame is an omnipresent ingredient in Korean cuisine (see “About the Name of the Homepage“). The black variation, which is referred to either as heugimja (흑임자) or geomeunkkae (검은깨) in Korean, is less common and generally more expensive than the buff-colored sesame. Regardless of its original scarcity and associated exclusiveness resulting in a higher price, black sesame is nowadays consciously appreciated for aesthetic reasons in food preparation. Just like regular sesame, black sesame seeds are frequently used to garnish foods by adding the final decorative touch. However, black sesame seeds can also star as the main ingredient in a certain dish, favored because they bring the usual taste 👅, smell👃 and nutrients of regular sesame – plus optical effects!👁

Korean rice cakes, aka tteok (떡), which appear in innumerable diversity, may contain black sesame and are then normally vegan.🌱🍡 For instance, injeolmi or other types of glutinous rice cakes can be coated in black sesame. Other traditional dessert items such as dasik (다식) or gangjeong (강정) may likewise feature black sesame seeds. There is also a type of rice porridge, which mainly consists of rice, water and black sesame! This kind of porridge is called heugimja juk (흑임자죽) or geomeunkkae juk (검은깨죽) and it is one of the few veggie-friendly soups and porridges in Korea. 🥣 It turns darker and richer the more ground black sesame seeds are mixed into it. Black sesame seeds may also be added to tofu and some kinds of vegan Korean jellies, which give the final product a grayish tone.

Besides these more traditional dishes, foods newer to Korea such as bakery products and modern dessert items, may also be colored with ground black sesame seeds. In bakeries, you can find black cookies, macarons, scones, breads and even donuts flavored with black sesame! 🍪🍞🍰🍩 Especially vegan bakeries in Seoul are leading the way in using sesame seeds as a natural and plant-based food colorant. 🌱 Other sweet treats, which you might come across, are black sesame lattes, bingsu and ice cream with black sesame flavor.🍦 If you are lucky, one of those artisan gelato stores serves black sesame ice cream on the day you visit!

⬛️ Squid Ink 먹물 🦑

In other parts of contemporary Korean cuisine, however, a whole other ingredient is very popular: Squid ink. 🦑 A recent food trend involves coloring anything ranging between bread, pizza, pasta, even ice cream with this natural ink. 🦑🍞🦑🍕🦑🍝🦑🍦 Apparently, the black and white contrast is a favorite among food designers, so many black foods are accompanied with a white component, such as white powdery garnish, fillings of cream cheese or mozzarella topping. The appearance surely is stunning. 🤩 But be aware, that these products are not veggie-friendly.🚫🌱 According to Wikipedia, the ink is extracted from the dead animal.

Dried Umbilicaria lichen 석이버섯

⬛️ Rock Tripe, an Edible Lichen 석이버섯 🪨

Yet another natural ingredient which is used for its black color is a curious organism scientifically referred to as Umbilicaria esculenta. An English name ascribed to it is “rock tripe”.

The first time I encountered it, it looked like pieces of scorched skin or some kind of dried seafood… 🤔 The Korean name translates to “rock ear mushroom” (seogi beoseot 석이버섯 石耳), in correspondence with the “wood ear mushroom” (mogi beoseot 목이버섯 木耳). The latter is a jelly fungus, commonly used in Asian cuisine and perhaps more familiar by the name Mu Er (Auricularia auricula-judae). Umbilicaria, however, is no fungus. Biologically, Umbilicaria is classified as a type of lichen. What is this mysterious organism? 🕵️‍♀️

No animal. No plant. No fungus. No algae. No moss.


Lichen are something on their own! Actually, they are symbiotic organisms, which consist of fungi and algae components. Fascinating, eh? 🤓

Among the 20,000 different species in the lichen kingdom, some are actually edible! Maybe even terms like “manna” or “Iceland moss” mean something to someone here, because lichen have been eaten by several cultures across the globe and throughout history.

Umbilicaria esculenta, which is the species of edible lichen traditionally consumed on the Korean peninsula, grows on rocks or large stones inside clean forests. This so-called rock tripe is flat and thin, with a brown-grayish top and a black underside. It feels dry and paper-like. Since these lichen grow on rocks, it is important to wash them properly – otherwise moss and sand get into the food! 💦

Umbilicaria lichen 석이버섯 prepared as a vegan side dish. Home-made.

The texture of cooked Umbilicaria lichen is chewy and slightly tough. The top side, which turns grayish blue, is smooth and slippery, whereas the black underside has a soft almost felt-like surface. There is a knob-like protrusion in the center, which is where the lichen was attached to the rock and which is hard to chew.

Its color does not mix with water, so the lichen are ground into powder and then mixed with dry ingredients in order to color food black. Alternatively, it is cut into fine strips and used sparingly for garnish. Supposedly, there exist some kinds of rice cakes, which are colored with it, but I have not seen any recently… It may be rather difficult to find Korean edible lichen these days and – contrary to sesame and squid ink products – nothing you will encounter in daily life.

What’s the difference between plant-based and animal-based? How to tell whether something is colored with squid ink? 🦑🌱

In general, foods that have been colored with squid ink have a subtle, but distinct smell to them. Koreans largely categorize this as “fishy smell” (birinae 비린내), but they apply the term to various odors, including those at fish markets but also blood or overcooked soy beans. Hence, it is a rather broad description of (slightly?) differing olfactory experiences. In the given case, the smell is reminiscent of cuttlefish (squid, calamari, sepia etc.) for obvious reasons… 👃🦑 Sesame, on the other hand, brings a nutty flavor. 👃🥜 On top of that, sesame also exhibits deeper, roasted aromas. Depending on your background, you might perceive the smell as more dominant than in familiar sesame products, since Koreans preferably use roasted sesame seeds.
Unfortunately, by the time you smell that something is fishy, you’ve probably also already taken a bite out of it. [Too late….😖]

So let’s take a step back in time and examine the shady food item beforehand. 👀 There are obvious differences in appearance! The skins of sesame normally remain visible, despite having been ground finely. Consequently, black foods can be distinguished based on texture and color-pattern: While squid ink (liquid) creates a smooth and homogeneous tone in the final product, foods colored with black sesame (ground into powder or a paste) exhibit tiny black dots and may have a slightly gritty mouthfeel.

But you don’t always get a good look at the object in question… 🔬 […much less permission to dissect it 🥽🔪] So, after all, the best way of knowing the secret behind the color is doing some research beforehand. 👓 [Apart from reading this article, undertaking certain studies directly prior to purchase are warmly recommended! 📖]
It requires minimal Korean skills to apply the following steps:

  • The Korean word for squid ink “먹물” (pronounced meongmul) or more precisely “오징어먹물” (ojing-eo meongmul) is sometimes included in the name of the food product. This is of course the easiest way of identifying it! But the labeling of food items in Korea is “very creative” [not to say random], so you cannot rely on “ink” being mentioned in the title 100% of the time. [Among the image captions here, there are plenty of examples!]
  • Ideally, there is an ingredient list which provides the most precise answer. One look at the allergen warning of a food label disclosing the word “오징어” (ojing-eo – meaning squid) is enough to reveal that the color is of animal origin.
  • If neither of above options are given, asking the vendor for clarification shall be your final strategy. [Provided they are informed about the products they sell, which is sadly not always the case.] You can inquire about the source of the color by saying something like this:

    혹시 오징어 먹물 들었어요?
    Hoksi ojing-eo meongmul deureosseoyo?
    “Has squid ink been added to this?” 🦑

    If the reaction sounds like “Neh” (네), “Yeh” (예) or looks like a vigorous nod, you know that your hypothesis has been confirmed. 🧐

Korean food which is traditionally considered Black Food

⚫️ Black Beans 🥜

Besides black sesame, there are other foods of which black variations exist.

One of these are black soy and other kinds of black-colored beans. [There are indeed numerous different kinds of beans!]

The most common cultivars of black soybean are Heuktae (흑태) which have a yellow inside ⚫️🟡, and Seoritae (서리태) with a green inside. ⚫️🟢 While Heuktae simply means “black bean” ⚫️, Seoritae is named “frost bean” because it is harvested at the time of the first frost in October. ❄️ There is also a small, black bean referred to as Seomoktae (서목태) or Jwinuni-kong (쥐눈이콩), which both literally mean “mouse eye bean” 🐀👁, as well as Yak-kong (약콩) for “medicinal bean”. 💊

Using black soybeans in cooking results normally in a darker colored product but not in a rich black tone of the entire food. For instance, tofu and soy milk made from black soybeans exhibit a grayish tint instead of the regular cream-colored tone. In order to achieve a stronger color effect, however, black sesame seeds may be used additionally.

Store displaying an assortment of various grains and beans – including glutinous black rice and black soy beans – at Sinwon market 신원시장, Seoul 2019.

⚫️ Black Rice 흑미 🍚

Moreover, there are also variations of rice, which are black. Although, there seem to be innumerably many types of rice, ranging from round-grain, long-grain, wild rice and glutinous rice, the general Korean name for black-colored rice is heungmi (흑미 黑米). This name stands in contrast to regular white rice (baengmi 백미 白米), which is the peeled form of “brown rice” (hyeonmi 현미 玄米). Although raw black rice appears to be black, in cooked form, the color turns out to actually be dark purple. When mixed with other ingredients, such as white rice, the black rice dyes its surroundings purple. Hence, foods that have black rice mixed into them, exhibit a purple tint. 💜

⚫️ Black Noodles 짜장면 🍜

Apart from ingredients that are labeled “black” but actually aren’t thaaat black when used in cooking, there is one dish that is typically considered as black food: Jjajangmyeon (짜장면). Koreans have even dedicated a day to it – April 14, the “Black Day”! To be more precise, the day is not entirely dedicated to the dish itself, but rather to singles: On the occasion of “Black Day”, when singles order this dish, they come out as lonely. 🥢👤 Hopefully another soul discovers them eating all alone by themselves and joins them. 🥢👤🥢👤 Enjoying food in company, makes everything taste better, doesn’t it?! 🥢👥😊 Perhaps the meal of Jjajangmyeon shared over some good conversations develops into something more? 🥢👥 💘 Who knows…? 🥰 [Before we delve into romantic day-dreaming, let’s get back to the topic!] Apart from facilitating finding at least an eating partner… What IS Jjajang-myeon??? In short, it is an originally-Chinese-but-Koreanized-dish featuring long wheat noodles with a “black” sauce, which is normally neither halal, nor kosher, nor veggie-friendly. ❗️🐷🚫🌱 (Unless you know a veggie-friendly restaurant whose menu includes vegan Jjajangmyeon or you possess advanced Korean language skills to customize it.)

[Find more information and learn how to order veganized Jjajangmyeon in THIS Instagram post.]

Regarding the color… Decide for yourselves, whether you would term the color of the sauce as black. 🤨 Anyhow, this dish is (officially) designated as black food in Korea….

Black is black. Or is it not?

“Black Sesame Bingsu” (흑임자설빙) and “Oreo Monster Bingsu” (오레오몬스터설빙) at “Sulbing” (설빙). Seoul, November 2019.

Okay, I admit. Korea’s black foods are not quite the same as charcoal-colored foods. If you prefer to avoid animal-based black food 🚫🦑, your only reliable friend is black sesame.💚🌱 Besides the color being less intensive and the possibility of spotted patterns or grainy textures, there is also a certain taste and smell associated with each of these natural food colorants. Charcoal, on the other hand, is neutral in flavor and the black tone seems to be a bit more impressive.

But why not choose a food BECAUSE of its specific flavor?

Why not choose a food BECAUSE it contains more minerals and nutrients than plain versions?

You just got to love black sesame. 🖤



Notes from the author:

*) By the way, did you know that Korean-produced Oreo cookies are not vegan? 🚫🌱 For some reason, the Korean recipe currently includes lactose (milk sugar) as well as whey powder. 🐄🥛 If you are lucky, however, you may find imported Oreo cookies (e.g. from Thailand) without animal components at your local supermarket!

  • alternative spellings: colour / colours / colouring / colourant / colourants
  • alternative names: food dye / food dyes / dyeing

13 thoughts on “Taste of black: animal- or plant-based food colors?

Add yours

  1. “But why not choose a food BECAUSE of its specific flavor?

    Why not choose a food BECAUSE it contains more minerals and nutrients than plain versions?”

    I agree, 100% 💚🌱
    Amazing article as always. Never heard of lichen before. Very cool! Intriguing, even! 🖖🙃


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