Why adding activated charcoal to dishes is the newest food trend | art and culture

In January, cold-pressed juice brand, Raw Pressery, launched a new detox drink. The colour is a curious black, thanks to the addition of activated charcoal — an age-old ingredient believed to absorb and flush impurities 100 times its size. Overcoming our initial reservations about the unappealing colour, we take a sip. It tastes sandy with the sourness of lemon and the sweetness of agave nectar.

Two months later, we find ourselves at Street Nights (a culture and food event) during the Dubai Food Festival and try a charcoal lemonade. This time, we don’t mind the texture and actually savour the drink.

Charcoal lemonade by celebrity nutritionist Sneha Tyrewala.

Activated charcoal is increasingly being used as a key ingredient across restaurants and bars in Mumbai. MasalaBar (Bandra) serves a charcoal pav bhaji, while Olive (Khar) offers a smoked salmon with avocado mousse in a charcoal bagel. And it’s not just food: it is also used in soaps and face-packs that promise glowing skin.

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Arjun Chaudhary, who is set to launch a restaurant, No Vacancy Bar Kitchen in Bandra, terms it the latest ingredient chefs are playing around with. “It pairs beautifully with a woody scotch and gives a sleek look to cocktails. It is also a cure for hangover. A few grams of activated charcoal mixed in water offers relief when consumed immediately,” he says.

Origin story

Activated charcoal is made by burning coconut shells and collecting the carbon, which is then immersed in hot water. This extract is believed to absorb 100 times its weight. So, theoretically, one tablespoon of charcoal can absorb an entire football field of charcoal.

There is a significant difference between charcoal and coal: the former is edible, while the latter is not. Marketed today as an ingredient beneficial for a detox, charcoal has traditionally been used for dental care and as a cure for flatulence. Charcoal-based carbon filters have also been employed to purify water.

Carbon bhaji, carbon pao at MasalaBar.

Like most food trends, using activated charcoal, too, was popularised by the West. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian and actor Gwyneth Paltrow swear by activated charcoal in cold-pressed juices, and charcoal latte is now a rage in the US, and even the Middle East.

Saurabh Modi, head chef at MasalaBar, says the black hue that activated charcoal adds to a dish is an effective way to attract patrons’ notoriously fleeting attention. “We started using activated charcoal as a gimmick element, to have some fun with the regular pav bhaji. Initially, people ordered it because they were curious to try it. Guests also like to take a picture and put it up on social media,” he says.

Weighing the benefits

But why would you want charcoal-infused dishes on your plate, you may wonder. For one, activated charcoal bonds with toxic substances and gets rids of them. “However, you need to be careful with how much charcoal is used in the dish. As a…

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