LIFE&STYLE

[Weekender] Bingsu, Korea’s heat-beating ice dessert

By Joel Lee
  • Published : Jul 7, 2017 - 17:26
  • Updated : Jul 7, 2017 - 17:38
If Italy has gelato and France has sorbet, Korea has bingsu.

It is a national dessert made of shaved ice, milk and condensed milk, and often topped with sweetened red beans or fruits. It is a dish beloved across generations, chilling their taste buds and slaking their thirst in the thick of summer.

After a meal, Koreans like to go to a bingsu store to dive into a bowl of shaved ice, usually with friends or family. While the original “patbingsu” is made of ice, milk and red beans, more varieties have been added over the years, leading to those bursting with green tea ice cream, frozen fruits, rice cake, yogurt and coffee. There are even alcoholic bingsu concocted using Korea’s traditional rice wine makgeolli.

The Park Hyatt Seoul’s teahouse restaurant The Lounge has four different types of bingsu: makgeolli, honey, mango and red bean. The desserts are prepared by sous chef Justin Kim, who has been striving to find a sensible meeting point between the country’s classic cuisines and the world’s cosmopolitan cravings. 

The makgeolli bingsu -- made of rice wine, fruits and various toppings -- available at teahouse restaurant The Lounge of the Park Hyatt Seoul hotel. (Park Hyatt Seoul)

“The makgeolli bingsu is our signature dessert, prepared with the finest ingredients of makgeolli and various berries and toppings,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “Many foreigners find the milky, chalky taste of the rice wine unfamiliar at start, so we have eliminated the strong alcoholic taste by vaporizing the alcohol and mixing it with berries and toppings.”

The bingsu uses makgeolli -- a rice-based, opaque and coarsely fermented liquor that is member of the “takju” family -- and ice flakes, berries, oranges and grapefruit, which are then topped with pistachio paste and mint. The flavor has a tinge of alcohol, but one that is not strong enough to inebriate.

“It’s our unique dish and we are the first to develop it,” he said, explaining the process of ablating the alcohol through boiling and freezing, which is then used as the shaved ice.

Many foreigners, particularly the Japanese, who have tried it for the first time, “absolutely fall in love with it,” the chef highlighted. 

The mango bingsu at The Lounge of the Park Hyatt Seoul hotel. (Park Hyatt Seoul)

Korean desserts like cinnamon punch “sujeonggwa,” sweet rice drink “sikhye” and rice cake “tteok” have become more diverse and sophisticated over the years, and so have bingsu, Kim noted. He pointed to advanced cooking techniques and nuanced cookeries that have gentrified the tastes of consumers.

“Similar to Taiwan’s mango bingsu, we want to popularize our bingsu around the world. When foreigners come to Korea, I want them to try it as a must-eat dessert,” Kim said. “I think promoting it at events like summer and winter Olympics and international conferences would be a great idea.”

Bingsu was confined to the realm of upper-crust society when it first entered Korea’s culinary scene in the early 20th century through the Japanese colonialists. As there were not enough refrigerators available, bingsu was considered a rare delicacy.

With the franchisation of bingsu since the 1980s, the dessert has entered the mainstream. Although different varieties exist in Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere, Korea’s bingsu is unique with sundry toppings like rice cakes and red beans, a recipe similar to bibimbap, a Korean dish made by mixing rice, vegetables, meat and condiments.

The honey bingsu at The Lounge of the Park Hyatt Seoul hotel (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

The Taegeukdang bakery in central Seoul has been selling old-style bingsu for over a decade. Founded in 1946 just after Korea gained independence from Japan, the confectionery store has been the preserve of old memories for many of its customers, some of whom are in their 80s. Since reopening in late 2015 following an extensive renovation, the patisserie has a new interior dripping with art deco charm and elegance.

“We pride ourselves in making bingsu the same way it was made in the old days,” the store’s brand manager Shin Hye-myung said in an interview, referring to the recipe using crudely shaven ice, condensed milk and steamed sweet red beans.

“That makes our bingsu more unique. People of all ages like it, because it harkens back to the old taste they are used to. With a refreshing and simple taste, you don’t get fed up.”

Taeguekdang also sells Monaca bingsu, which uses red beans, rice cakes, and particularly the milk ice cream that the shop has been long famous for. Its signature monaca ice-cream has kept the same flavor for over 50 years, as it has been prepared by the same baker since 1966.

During the day time, people in their 70s and 80s haunt the place, the third-generation owner said, adding more and more foreigners also visit through word of mouth.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)

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