Natural food colourings

In making glutinous rice balls recently, I came across various natural food colourings for red, brown, yellow, green and lavender. With food intolerances, it’s one of my priorities to avoid artificial colourings and additives.

In today’s Sunday Times, one of the food questions of the week is about this very topic. The writer of the question tried making coloured kueh ku skin (made from glutinous rice flour, see recipes here) and noted:
– black: ground black sesame -> successful
– red: beetroot juice -> not successful: purplish red dough turned dull light orange after steaming

The newspaper’s food columnist, Chris Tan, suggested the following natural food colourings:

1) Red yeast rice. Rice grains coloured by a type of red yeast, which are used in Chinese red fermented tofu, nam yee, and red rice wine lees. Available as whole grains from Chinese medicine and grocery shops for grinding at home. [24/2/08 update: organic red yeast rice 紅麴, which can be used as a natural food colouring, available in bottled sauce form 紅麴醬 from Taiwan, sold at Organic Paradise in Temple Street.]

2) Annatto seeds or powder. For a warm orange colour. Seeds must be soaked in warm water or oil to get an extract. Use only in small quantities because of spicy-bitter flavour. [FOOD INTOLERANCE WARNING!! Annatto “is the only natural colour that has so far as been found to cause as many adverse intolerance reactions as artificial colours and to affect more consumers that artificial colours. It has also been associated with rare allergic reactions. Adverse reactions to annatto can include skin, gastrointestinal, airways and central nervous system reactions.” Read more here.]

3) Orange sweet potatoes. Bake and mash. I successfully used pumpkin instead, as described here.

4) Turmeric. For vivid yellow. Use pounded fresh turmeric but if too much used, you’ll taste the turmeric.

5) Gardenia seed pods (kuchinashi no mi) gives a sunshine yellow colour. Used to colour Japanese daikon oshinko pickles and available at Japanese supermarkets. Open the pods, crush internal seeds and soak to get the yellow extract.

6) Pandan leaves for green. Pandan leaves can be pounded, blended or squeezed. Pandan serani is harder to find but has more intense colour and no frangrance.

7) Bunga telang (clitoria ternatea, butterfly pea flower) – blue colouring. Traditional colouring in Malay, Thai and Nonya desserts, such as kueh salat. To extract blue juice, pound the flowers, preferably fresh ones, alternatively used dried. See this discussion thread on where to find bunga telang in Singapore (basically you have to try and find some live plants :P).

8) Bunga telang blue juice + lime juice = violet colour.

9) Mashed steamed purple root vegetables. Purple sweet potatoes for royal purple shade, purple taro gives a lavender colour. More rare is a Filipino purple yam called ube in Tagalog which gives a vibrant purple colour; search for it in markets at Tekka and Chinatown.

10) Pulot hitam (black glutinous rice) – garnet hue. Soak and grind the grains.

11) Matcha (green tea powder) but note strong flavour.

12) Saffron for yellow but has strong flavour.

13) Daum ramay/ramai leaves. Surfing the net, I also just came across this traditional colouring for making black kueh ku for the Hungry Ghosts Festival or death anniversaries.

From this book of Japanese sweets, 《和果子.和甘味 (秋冬篇)》 (in Chinese and English):
14) Red rice (red). Grind to powder.

15) Soy beans (yellow). Grind to powder.

16) Green peas (green). Grind to powder.

Would love to hear if you have tried any of these and what results you got.

[31/3/08 update: See my new posting, Natural food colourings II.]


2 Responses

  1. Just received this message from Jane Hersey of the Feingold Association

    “There are several companies that make natural food colorings; check out , a candy shop in the US that provides a great deal of different natural alternatives for eating and baking.

    PS Dyes like tartrazine are derived from petroleum!”

  2. Following a chain of links here, thought I’d add a couple thoughts despite the age of this post — I’ve made o-dango with beet powder and it comes out a spectacular red-violet, even after cooking. I found it easily at the Whole Foods supermarket chain.

    Living in South Florida, I’ve grown my own butterfly peas, and can assure you the flowers nearly bleed blue at the least provocation *grin*. It’d be easy enough to soak a half-dozen flowers or so and use the blue water to blend into the rice flour instead of having to pound things.


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