Taste of black: animal- or plant-based?

Ice cream colored with black sesame at Blackburn’s 블랙번즈 in Seoul, 2019.

🖤 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 beside 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 ingredients which are (some traditionally, some more recently) used to dye all types of food in magnificent black.

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

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. There is also 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 black sesame is mixed into it. Ground black sesame seeds may also be added to tofu and some kinds of Korean jellies, which gives the final product a grayish tone.

Beside 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 or breads. 🍪🍞🍰 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 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!

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.

Yet another natural ingredient, which is used for its black color is a curious organism scientifically referred to as Umbilicaria esculenta. The first time I encountered it, it looked to me 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 alga. No moss.

Lichen.

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

Its color does not mix with water, so the lichen are ground into powder and then mixed with dry ingredients. 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 it 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 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 by 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 is “Neh” (네), a “Yaeh” (예) or a vigorous nod, you know that your hypothesis has been confirmed. 🧐

Korean dishes which are traditionally considered Black Food

Dried black soy beans (seoritae 서리태).

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

One of these are black soy beans and other types of black-colored beans. [There are indeed numerous different kinds!] Using them 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 soy beans exhibit a grayish tint instead of the regular cream-colored tone. In order to achieve a stronger color effect, however, black sesame seeds may have been 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.

Moreover, there are also variations of rice, which are black. Although, there are diverse types of rice, ranging from round-grain, long-grain, wild rice and glutinous rice, the general Korean name for black-colored rice is heukmi (흑미 黑米). This name stands in contrast to regular white rice (baekmi 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. 💜

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: Jjajang myeon (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 Jjajang myeon 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 Jjajang myeon or you possess advanced Korean language skills to customize it.) [More details in a future Instagram post. Possibly in mid-April…]

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?

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.💚🌱 Beside 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 more neutral in flavor and the black tone seems 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. 🖤

Fast Food Fashion of South Korea

Balli balli!” (빨리! 빨리!) Move fast, act immediately, there’s no time! Anyone who visits Seoul will quickly notice how many people appear to be in a rush in whatever they do. Some may call this impatient and short-tempered, others may consider this behavior as targeted at optimization of processes. In the end it might be a mixture of both. 🤷‍♂️

In connection with this collective mindset, there is the phenomenon that the entire city of Seoul is changing rapidly: New buildings arise out of nowhere, businesses open and shut down within a few months, and the smartphone you purchased last year is already too old to attract potential pickpockets. The same is true for various expressions of contemporary culture, such as fashion trends, hair styles and nail art. But did you know that there exists also such a thing as food fashion? In South Korea, it certainly does!

Food fashion???

YES! Of course!

Food is more than just something to fuel your body with energy. [D’uh!]

Food is creatively developed to please all your senses. Ideally, the sensory experience includes that its immaculate outer appearance attracts your attention, after which you will be seduced by its mouthwatering scent. When you touch it, you can feel its texture and discover that it consists of multiple layers, from the outer crust towards the interior. In your mouth, then, your tongue further explores the transmuting textures and plays with the pieces of food. Released is its unique taste – seasoned perfectly in balance with the bliss point. The taste is addictive. You want to take another bite. And another bite… And another… [Note to self: Better stop here. By that I mean indulging in eating as well as further remarks!]

Object of desire?
Tofu pasta at ‘Green Pantry’ in Seoul, spring 2019.

In short, food is designed. It is the product of a process, which requires knowledge about the materials, physical skills and creativity. Regardless of it being grandma’s famous apple pie, the hand-pulled noodles from the traditional Chinese restaurant or the industrially manufactured foods, which engage bio-chemical scientists, nutritionists as well as marketing agents. They all aim to create food whose design persuades us to eventually consume it.

We have come so far that food photographers and food stylists are established as fully recognized jobs by now. 💇‍♀️💅📸 In other words, people can be professionally trained in these fields! And in South Korea, the market of the food industry is fairly big. And not to forget, also, the marketing department is a driving force in food fashioning and generating trends.

So in (random?) intervals, new food trends are evolving. Some of these trends are very short-lived, some vanish after a few months, and yet others last for years and may establish themselves as a kind of “style”.

The object of such trends could be an existing food item that has been imported from other cultures. To provide an example, German Schneeballen (shyu-nebalen 슈네발렌) were once in fashion in Korea. Sometime between the years 2013 and 2014, a Korean friend proudly told me about her experience of having eaten this “traditional German dessert”. I had never heard of it before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and finally discovered these “snow ball” like pastries on a Christmas market in Berlin. In Seoul, however, they had practically disappeared by 2015, and I considered myself lucky when I eventually found a cafe which had specialized in Schneeballen in a provincial city in southern Korea!

Koreanized Schneeballen labeled as “funny cookie smashing with hammer” (Manchi gwaja 망치과자), re-discovered inside Myeongdong Station (명동역). Seoul, summer 2019.

More persistent than the Schneeballen trend and also initiated by imported, international foods are such things as coffee, waffles, pork cutlet “Schnitzel” in Japanese style (donkkasseu 돈까스), French croissants and pastries, Chinese-origin Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) etc. All of these did not traditionally belong to Korean cuisine but they have been incorporated into contemporary K-food culture at varying degrees: Often they are not inferior to the original; sometimes they are transformed into a fusion product bearing traits from both cultures (e.g. green tea croissants!); yet other food items are refined and produced in a quality exceeding their foreign precursors (e.g. bienna keopi (비엔나 커피) aka. ainshyupaeneo (아인슈패너) based on Austrian coffee drink “Einspänner“, in fashion since 2018).

In other cases, one single ingredient is the stimulant for a new food trend. A sudden hype is triggered by a certain ingredient, which is then added to various existing food items. A good illustration of this is green tea powder (Jap. matcha), which in the late 2000s, was advertised as being capable of reducing the calorie intake and thus appealed to (mostly female) consumers interested in dieting. Consequently, it appeared in various categories of food, which were accordingly labeled as “well being” (welbing 웰빙). This trend was so successful that today, matcha has ended up as a common flavoring ingredient, mostly in desserts and beverages but also in noodles – similar to cocoa or chocolate-flavored foods in the Western world. Ever since, matcha latte, matcha ice cream and matcha cake are standard items in coffee shops and grocery stores in South Korea.
Other examples for the single-ingredient or one-theme trend are sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박), mugwort (ssuk 쑥), squid ink (coloring breads, pasta and pizzas), Oreo cookies etc. One of the most recent trends, which set off this spring 2019, is based on black sugar (heukdang 흑당): You can see it mostly in bubble tea beverages and bingsu (빙수 – shaved-ice desserts) flavored, upgraded and garnished in the respective theme. Who knows how long this trend will last?

Then, there are new, innovative food items, which originate from one [unknown] creative mind and, as popularity within one region grows, are copied by competitors and distributed further. To illustrate, there used to be such a thing as “Walking Stick Ice Cream” (jipangi ice cream 지팡이아이스크림) – essentially soft serve filled into a wafer shaped like the letter ‘J’. As I recall, it was available around 2014 and 2016. While in areas frequented by international tourists, such as Insadong (인사동) and Myeongdong (명동), there used to be a food stall for jipangi ice cream every 50 meters, it seems to have completely disappeared by now. [Anyone sighting this presumably extinct ‘specie’ or willing to share old photos, please contact the author.]

Angbeoteo (앙버터) at ‘Jean Boulangerie’ (쟝블랑제리) in Seoul, spring 2019.

Another fashionable dessert invention, which I’d like to mention here, is angbeoteo (앙버터): A sandwich containing red bean paste (pat ang-geum 팥앙금) and a thick slice of butter – called “beoteo” (버터) in Korean. Bread and butter – nothing spectacular, you may think. You may also be familiar with the sweet red bean paste filling, which is common in traditional and modern Korean desserts, e.g. rice cakes (tteok 떡), steamed buns (jjim-ppang 찜빵), bean-filled bread rolls (pat-ppang 팥빵). But did you notice the dimensions of the butter that goes into angbeoteo? Rather than a slice of butter, a CHUNK of butter seems to be a more adequate description. And it’s supposed to be eaten as it is! At room temperature. No warming up in the microwave or the oven to melt the butter!!! 🛑 This curious construction has appeared in 2018 and has true fans among Korean ‘bread lovers’ or ‘bread maniacs’, who refer to themselves as “ppang-suni” (빵순이) or “ppang-dori” (빵돌이). [Personally, however, I am not very fond of butter, as you might have noticed…]

With these rapidly changing trends, I oftentimes find myself regretting to not having tried a certain food item, as long as it was available. You never know when a new food item appears or disappears. And similar to other fields of fashion, such as hair styles or jeans trends, there is also the phenomenon of trends recurring after some time. Such is the case for “Mammoth bread” (mammos-ppang 맘모스빵), which – as the name implies – is a big, rustic-looking kind of “bread”. To be more precise, this kind of Korean bread consists of two layers of sheet cake (similar to German Streuselkuchen) which are covered with cream, jam, spreads or other pastes and are then stacked on top of each other to create one MASSIVE sandwich with sweet filling. From what I have heard, mammos-ppang already existed in the 1980s. I am not sure whether it had actually gone extinct in the meantime, but modern bakeries have re-discovered mammos-ppang and breathed new life into it by breeding new variations featuring matcha flavor, chocolate, sweet potato etc. It is indeed a living fossil which enjoys large popularity at the moment.

Next, we can also talk about food trends with regards to seasons – just like in the clothing industry. There are literally seasons for certain food items, which are A) connected to the availability of the main ingredients and B) to the conditions of the natural environment. The first factor is related to the fact that spring greens, edible flowers or fresh strawberries simply do not exist all throughout the year. Once in season, however, suddenly all sorts of foods are flavored with the respective ingredient. Consequently, many coffee shops temporarily offer special desserts and beverages inspired by the short but intense bloom of cherry blossoms. 🌸 Let’s say, you missed out on Korean Starbucks‘ cherry blossom menu this year, then you need to wait until next year. But who knows what concoctions their creative department will cook up in the meantime? Perhaps, you will never get a second chance to try that green tea latte with cherry blossom cream and pink chocolate! While there is some joy in looking forward to new, delectable creations, there is also a sad aspect of such ‘limited editions’ in the food fashion world.
The second factor determining a food season are weather conditions. Many Korean restaurants have an additional summer menu, featuring mostly cold noodle dishes – a welcome refreshment during 40 degrees Celsius plus humidity! ☀️🌡 Who wants to eat noodles in a chilled broth with ice cubes during winter anyways? (Ironically, hot and spicy dishes as well as nourishing stews are available independently from outside temperatures, though.) Seasonal eating is a thing. Just like dressing according to the weather conditions.
Overall, with regards to food seasons, Korean food fashion is comparable to other cultures. Germany, for instance, has likewise developments whenever regional produce such as rhubarb or asparagus are available. Also, [most] ice cream parlors open only during the warmer months. [Totally incomprehensible in the author’s opinion.]

Last, but not least, above mentioned food trends and the impact of food on contemporary Korean culture are also visible in the country’s language. Korean people actually say things like “This [random food item] is in fashion now, isn’t it?!” (요즘은 [앙버터]가 유행이지!) or “That bakery is very popular at the moment!” (저 빵집이 요새 되게 잘 나가는 곳이지!) or “This coffee shop is totally in!” (여기가 핫한 까페야!). In context with the latter statements, you will see people standing in lines outside restaurants and bakeries, which have received attention in the media and turned into a pilgrimage destination for foodies. People are willing to wait for hours just to taste that renowned food item. There are not a few committed foodies, who travel inside the city as well as nationwide just to visit certain locations because of the food. Eventually, their experiences and impressions are published online on various social media channels, in which they proudly show how they have been able to consume a certain item or visit a famous eating location. It is a way of making a [food] fashion statement.

Excerpt of YouTube search, May 2019.

To conclude, this post is a rough sketch of the current phenomenon of food fashion and eating trends in South Korea. The entire topic as well as corresponding customs surrounding food in general exhibit immense dimensions permeating social structures, religion, language, cultural as well as economical developments and more! After all, TV programs, Instagram, YouTube and other media are filled with edible content, which transcends traditional information on recipes or cooking instructions: They feature e.g. eating channels (mukbang / meokbang 먹방), new food reviews, restaurant suggestions and so-called “food porn”, all of which instantly convey a very graphic image of Korea’s obsession with food.

Are you hungry yet? 🍽