Bingsu (빙수) is, quite possibly, my favorite discovery in South Korea. It’s a dessert created mostly from shaved ice, fruit, and a tiny cup of sweetened condensed milk. Of course, it has many different variations. Wikimedia describes it as:
Bingsu or bingsoo is a very popular and elaborate snack/dessert in Korea, especially during the summer season. This snack is composed of ice shavings and various ingredients such as sweetened condensed milk, fruit syrups, various fruits such as strawberries, kiwifruit, and bananas, small pieces of tteok (rice cake), chewy jelly bits, and cereal flakes. It is often topped with ice cream or frozen yogurt. The most popular variety is patbingsu made with sweetened azuki beans (known as 팥, pat).
I don’t recommend eating patbingsu if you’re new to the dish or Korean food in general. Native Koreans advertise red bean paste deliciously sweet treat, but most of the time it just tastes like beans or ash to me. Instead, I would definitely suggest the more western oriented bingsu. Sulbing is a more international oriented bingsu restaurant. It’s cultish site advertises a “global healing project.” The sulbing site isn’t joking when it makes it’s “healing” claims. My comrades and I do feel revitalized after eating it. We say ridiculous things to each other like,”Do you feel refreshed?” “That was a moment of healing for me.” “It’s like the bingsu washed away my sins!” But don’t let the strange mottos concern you: they won’t serve you kool-aid flavored bingsu.
Instead, you can get the traditional patbingsu or injeolmi. Or, you can get the bingsu that you’ll probably find more delicious. The one that has the bingsu’s most delicious dessert championship belt: mango cheesecake bingsu. If you haven’t tried any bing-su yet, this is the most foreigner friendly. The mangoes taste lightly salted as so to bring out extra deliciousness. The cheesecake bites bring and unexpectedly welcome tanginess to the whole affair as well. After you get halfway through eating it, add the sweetened condensed milk to make sure you’re not eating flavorless ice. This is an important factor into your enjoyment of bingsu. Do not add the sweetened condensed milk to the dish preemptively! I made this mistake once before. If you add it too soon, you’ll end up mostly eating flavorless shaved ice.
As I slightly touched on before: not all bingsu is created equal. I would definitely advise steering away from anything that isn’t fruit related. As the ice melting would water down chocolate too much. Also, matcha green tea tastes completely different in Asia than it does in America.
One anecdote I can share is the Oreo bingsu that was offered for quite a time at Sulbing. This thing was a Goliath. Most bingsu is served in one big bowl that is perfect for sharing with you and a friend. This bingsu was a mountain of powdered chocolate, Oreos, ice cream, and shaved ice served in a Goliathan porcelain dish that would be best suited as a watering-hole for large, endangered birds. It should only be split between a group of three or four. I would often watch spritely Korean teenagers split this between themselves and whine about their hagwons. I was jealous.
I shouldn’t have been. After a nice afternoon of shopping with three other friends, we decided to head to sulbing. (I am always trying to throw sulbing into the mix.) We decided on the Oreo-bingsu. I was giddy. My two favorite desserts fucked and had a baby! So romantic~ But, as we started eating it, we realized that Sulbing had committed an egregious act of hubris. Just becasue two things are wonderful doesn’t mean that they’d be wonderful together. Attempting to eat this was like doing an ice cold version of the cinnamon challenge. The shaved ice didn’t wet the Oreos or the chocolate powder whatsoever. That’s when one of my friends, who shall remain nameless, decided to add the sweetened condensed milk to the mix after three bites. Pouring it directly onto the whipped cream, ice-cream, and slightly on the Oreos. We all watched in horror as four chunks of oreos absorbed the entirety of the milk, not leaving any for the flavorless ice underneath. We continued eating it, it was a never ending chore. Just when we thought we overcame the seemingly endless torment: we realized at the pit of the bowl was dry, unflavored cake. It was the first bowl of bingsu that I didn’t finish. I will never forgive that friend.
I hope that story didn’t turn you off to the glories of bingsu. It’s still super delicious. The amount of strategy you have to do before each scoop is totally worth it.