Black is beautiful – also in food

Black may be the colour of evil, even in Chinese culture, but for food it is a sign of superior nutrition

Black food has become a focus in the Chinese health food market in recent years. Black food refers to the natural melanin containing foods, whether derived from animals or plants. The natural melanin content causes a dark, dark purple, or dark brown colour. Some foods have a dark skin, while others are black at the end, inside or outside, such as black goji, black rice, black sesame seeds, black fungus, mushrooms, seaweed, kelp and laver. Manufactured black food, such as plum sauce, bean curd, soy sauce, cured egg etc., are meant to stimulate people’s appetite through their colour, but do not count as real black food.

The scope of what counts as black food is not strictly defined. The Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the earliest domestic research institutes specialising in black food. It defines black food as having a relatively dark natural colour, rich in nutrition, and structurally acceptable to the human physiology as food. This definition excludes artificially black foods such as soy sauce.

Black foods contrast with food groups of other colours:

  • White food: bread, noodles, etc.; main nutrients: starch, sugar and other carbohydrates;
  • Red food: pork, beef, lamb, chicken and rabbit; main nutrients: protein, fat;
  • Green food: green vegetables and fruits; main nutrients: a variety of vitamins and cellulose;
  • Black food: black rice, black beans, turtle, black fungus, black mushrooms; main nutrients: protein, fat, amino acids, vitamins.

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black foods nourish the kidneys. They are rich in anti-oxidants and can therefore prevent several types of cancer and slow down aging. They strengthen the brain and lower blood pressure. The fact that shining black hair has always been regarded as a sign of physical health in China certainly also plays a role in the positive image of black foods in China.

Five Black Elements

The most conspicuous producers of black foods in China is the Five Black Elements (Heiwulei) Group in Guangxi. The company was founded in 1984 as the Nanfang Children’s Food Factory by Mr. Wei Qingwen. The name Heiwulei was adopted a decade later. The term itself originates from the Cultural Revolution, denoting five types of bad people (‘black categories’) in society: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists. Mr. Wei loved black sesame paste, which was his company’s first product. Now, the company is producing ‘Eight Black Treasures’ (Heibazhen): black rice, black beans, black fungus, black mulberry, black corn, black dates, black sesame and black seaweed (laver).


Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.


I Love You – what Chinese do with oat

The first three words of the title of this post refer to a campaign of Xibei Youmian, a restaurant chain specialised in oat noodles. You(mian) is the Chinese word for ‘oat (noodles)’


Naked oat has more than 2100 year history in China. The Chinese oat growing region reached 1.13 million ha in the 1960s, but declined from 1980s, dropping to about 0.3 million ha in 2003, the lowest in history. After that, the area increased gradually. There were about 0.7 million ha of oats in 2010, with a total yield of about 850,000 mt. The reason for the recent increase is the growing popularity of this cereal, at least partly triggered by a new successful restaurant formula.

Westerners tend to associate oat with breakfast. Oat meal cooked in water or milk is a popular alternative for bread. Oat has been eaten as a staple in a large area in Northwest China (in particular: Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia). However, while the Western oat meal has reached Chinese breakfast tables as well in recent years, the traditional shapes in which it consumed is noodles.

In the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar, people in Inner Mongolia, especially in Hohhot, eat foods made with hulless oat flour in the form of noodles, rolls or pancakes involving various flavours. Oat is the staple food there. It is a low-yield, cold-resisting and salt-alkali-resisting crop with a short mature period, contain high protein, fat and many kinds of trace elements, such as iron, calcium and phosphorus. Oat powder can be made into noodles for mutton or vegetable soup seasoned with pepper and garlic.

Regular oat noodles are usually slightly thicker than the more common wheat noodles, due to the looser texture. The most typical presentation form of youmian in China is the cup noodle; short round hollow shapes that can be dipped in a savoury sauce, adding condiments of your choice. It is this type of oat noodles around which the above mentioned restaurant chain, Xibei Youmian, has been conceived. Xibei, though deliberately written with different characters, means ‘Northeast’, referring to the home region of Chinese oat. You have learned the word youmian in the opening paragraph.


Yet another traditional presentation form is the ‘oat fish’. This name is based on the shape, quenelles that, with a little phantasy, look like a fish. The picture shows fishes made from a combination of oat and yam.


Some innovative chefs are trying out new recipes like oat dumplings and oat pudding. Others make larger versions of the hollow oat noodles that can then be stuffed with different kinds of fillings.


Xibei Youmian serves oat in various shapes and other typical dishes of China’s Northwest. You can find them all over Beijing and they are crowded with returning patrons every lunch and dinner. Try it out yourself and I am sure you will join me in shouting ‘I love You!’.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.