Why some Hong Kong restaurants are following Japan's black food trend
Club sandwiches on black bread. Sliders in ebony buns. Bamboo charcoal ice cream. Black ramen noodles. How Hong Kong has jumped aboard the black food bandwagon
It doesn't always add to the flavour and it can make the food look odd, if not unappealing, but the trend of making dishes look black is gaining traction.
Club sandwiches at agnès b's Le Pain Grillé arrive on black bread. At Kale in Sheung Wan, customers bite into sliders with vegetarian or meat fillings sandwiched in ebony buns. Atum Desserant prepares elaborate dessert platters that include all-black bamboo charcoal ice cream. Several restaurants with Michelin stars are also in on the act. At Shang Palace diners can tuck into baked bamboo charcoal noodles with Alaskan crab meat and cheese.
The bizarre culinary infatuation has its origins in fast food. In 2012 Burger King and McDonald's in Japan both released pitch black burgers - photos of them went viral on social media and drew worldwide media attention. The gimmickry has spawned many imitations elsewhere. Even though countless food critics and burger loyalists sneered at the junk food's weird appearance, Japanese diners lapped it up.
After the chains brought their black buns to Hong Kong, many foods not normally associated with the colour have cropped up. One dish that has become a big hit with the city's food fans and amateur food photographers alike is the kuro ramen (black noodles) at Ippudo branches across the city.
Takeshige Miyaki, Ippudo's Hong Kong operations consultant, claims this dark variation of ramen was on their menus long before the food porn trend accelerated with the founding of Instagram in 2010.
"The creation of kuro does not have much to do with the emergence of social media trends but rather us sticking to our motto of continuously innovating to remain true," he says.
Colours have always played a significant role for this Japanese ramen giant.
"Almost 30 years ago when founder Shigemi Kawahara started the first Ippudo store in Japan, he named his signature ramen creations by the name of the colour of the bowl - shiro [white] and aka [red]," explains Miyaki.
Eventually it was black's turn; the result is kuro, a strongly flavoured bowl of house-made black garlic and chewy thick noodles.
The plan was to serve the dish in Hong Kong on limited offer for a few short months in 2014 but it returned by popular demand. "Once the promotion period ended, our fans kept clamouring for us to bring back kuro, so at the end of the year we introduced it to our core menu and now our fans can enjoy it whenever they visit us," he says.
However, some items given the black food treatment are destined to remain one-off promotional items.
Last year at The Big Bite in North Point, black foods were all the rage during its Halloween promotion. Patrons could tuck into Biohazard Wings (the poultry darkened with black food colouring) and the Evil Bastard, a more calorific version of the company's original burger. Here, black bamboo charcoal buns housed a 12-ounce (340-gram) beef patty, bacon and cheese.
"It's the same idea as when you drink green beer on St Patrick's day," says Joseph Chan, the founder of the Canadian burger operation.
The Big Bite still offers coloured burgers for private events to tie in with party themes.
"If the company's corporate colour is red, we can make red burgers," says Chan.
According to the proprietor, patrons who dared to try the black burgers enjoyed them very much.
"It doesn't taste any different than the regular burgers, it's just your brain playing tricks on you," he says.
But don't expect it on the regular menu.
"Until I can find an actual benefit of adding this ingredient to the burger, I would keep it as a promotional item," he says, adding that there is a production cost to offering the darkened variation.
However, The Big Bite will bring it back this Halloween.
"The black burgers were popular when we had them last year, but patrons were a lot more sceptical about the coloured chicken wings, which ended up looking more blue-green. They looked scary even for me," he says.