It is not entirely a strange concept to consume foods that are mysteriously "black". In foreign cuisines, we have pastas and sauces elegantly "contaminated" with squid ink, and the East, black sesame made its way through the shadow with its mesmerising aroma. Black soybeans came crashing into the healthy eating market with the features of being lower in carbs and higher in fibre, compared to its fair cousin.
Just when you were expecting that our adventurous palates have been saturated with the culinary arts of darkness, here comes charcoal walking through the back entrance....Yes, charcoal indeed! I am not referring to the carcinogenic derivatives on meats we generate from our most honourable barbeques, but a special variant of charcoal that has undergone a manipulative process of wood or bamboo, where heat no less than 1000 degrees celcius is applied for a pr0longed period of time.
This type of charcoal, Binchō-tan (備長炭) - the wood version or 竹炭 - the bamboo version, is certainly no stranger, but a highly valued multi-tasking gem among the residents of Japan. The origin of Binchō-tan dates back to the Genroku period of the Edo era (1688-1703) in Japan, when a businessman perfected the Chinese art of making charcoal that was introduced in the early 9th century. Binchō-tan is priced for its matching strength to steel, which is achieved through physical activation of the carbon in specially selected high density woods. This activation creates a type of charcoal that conducts electricity (therefore it has the ability to neutralise electromagnetic waves), with an ultimate power of filtration and humidity regulation. These qualities of Binchō-tan appears to be more suitable for household settings, and to the innovative Japanese, it wasn't surprising that they have incorporated Binchō-tan in the culinary setting. Rice becomes more flavourful with improved texture when cooked with Binchō-tan, due to the filtration power of the charcoal, and the leeching of microminerals from the wood, minerals that becomes available only after the activation process.
Don't be mistaken....cooking rice with Binchō-tan alone will not turn your rice black! However, with the constant expansion of the market for healthy eating, and the curiosity of Japanese consumers reaching the stratosphere, the ground version of this black mass has made its entrance to the culinary repetoire (the bamboo version is used for making "edible" ground charcoal). The Japanese believes that the filtration power of charcoal would translate when ingested, and often seen incorporated into flour for bread and pâtisserie items. This trend has infiltrated the neighbouring cities like Hong Kong and Taipei; Hong Kong now has a restaurant featuring sofisticated "charred" dishes!
Studies conducted in Japan have shown that consuming edible charcoal will enhance gastrointestinal mobility, digestion, and the excretion of toxic substances, but the Taiwanese found no convincing evidence to support these claims. What's my take on all these? It is an item I am not ready to incorporate into my daily diet. The porous nature of the charcoal would in theory have the ability to absorb toxic substances within our GI, but this absorption would unlikely be selective. It can interfere with the absorption of certain essential nutrients from our diet, which could lead to nutrient deficiencies. Similar to nutrient supplements, we should take caution with new "ingredients" where the effects of long term intake have not been studied. Despite the doubts, tastings were inevitable with my curiosity. The subtle yet complex bitterness of the charcoal added to the depth of flavours in sweet cakes....the best of all, the charcoal does not stain your tongue! A Sweet Deal indeed!