Life’s a bowl of...red beansRule number one: stick to tradition. Fusion is good, but not always with food, especially when we’re talking about frozen desserts.
Food experts in Korea have tried desperately to develop patbingsu, or shaved ice with red bean sauce, in innovative ways to suit modern tastes, especially after red beans became an unfashionable, “old-style” ingredient among a growing number of young Koreans. Red bean toppings take a backseat to fresh fruit, vanilla ice cream and green tea toppings in Seoul’s many franchise patbingsu shops. But to the meticulous tongues of culinary traditionalists, these replacements lack a certain authenticity.
Indeed, the best patbingsu cafes that I visited during the past three weeks have been places that offered the simplest recipes. Often it was as plain as finely shaved ice on top of fresh red beans that had been simmered at just the right temperature.
You know when you taste it: the flavor is there, but only the perfect trace of bean texture remains. No decorations. Certainly no canned fruits. Strawberry syrups or chocolate sticks are contraband, too, because they detract from the natural sweetness of the beans.
What was in front of me was just cold ice with fresh beans, simply perfect as a refreshing afternoon snack or a sultry summer-night binge.
I started with Mealtop (02-547-6800), a small cafe on the fifth floor of Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong, south of the river. Mealtop has been specializing in homemade red bean dishes for 15 years. Its speciality is patbingsu and red bean porridge.
The secret of the patbingsu here is the fineness of the shaved ice, which is so soft you can hardly feel the ice particles. Many patbingsu places in Seoul use sloppy crushers, resulting in customers impatiently waiting for the ice to melt, or just crunching down on their dessert. But the patbingsu at Mealtop almost seems like vanilla ice cream, with the rich condensed milk poured all over the ice and red beans.
Of course, in life there are two sides to everything. Fine ice, alas, melts a little too quickly. If you leave it in the bowl for too long, you’ll end up with cold dessert soup, which makes your head ache after a quick gulp. Yet eating this treat is worth a challenge. For 5,000 won ($4.20) you get heaps of cold ice that look like snowflakes with red beans and two rice cakes on top.
Some of the city’s best patbingsu places are located near women’s colleges. Someone should do a study.
Gami Bunsik (02-364-3948), a restaurant that has been serving patbingsu at Ewha Womans University for 30 years, is one of them. Waffle House (02-711-2649), near Sookmyung Women’s University, and Dongubak Gwasuwon-gil, a cafe near Sungshin Women’s University until it closed last year, were famous patbingsu shops in town until desserts from abroad such as bubble tea, Starbucks Frappuccinos or Haagen-Dazs ice cream overtook the old standby.
Actually, it isn’t a mystery at all that the best patbingsu franchisers are seeking the company of young women ― think about our ravenous cravings for chocolates and sweets, longings that border on the mystical. Maybe red beans to Korean women are the equivalent of chocolate to Western women.
The exact history of patbingsu is unknown. Some credit the dessert to Emperor Nero of Rome who sent his slaves into the mountains all year round to retrieve snow, which he ate with a mixture of fruit pulp and honey.
The closest red bean dessert I can think of is an exotic drink I had in a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. It had a mix of sweet white and red mung beans with a cup of lemon juice, coconut milk, ice cubes and thin shards of green gelatin at the very top.
Centuries ago, the color of of red beans was believed to possess a mysterious cure that drove away evil spirits and bodily illnesses. This is why ancient Koreans used to eat ppatjuk, or red bean porridge, on the winter solstice to avoid various misfortunes they might face. Of course in the old days Koreans thought evil spirits hated anything bright, particularly the color red, which led some wives to dye their nails red every fall using extract from balsam plants, or sprinkle red beans in their well when an epidemic was spreading in town.
Even now, rice cakes mixed with crushed red beans are a typical dish families pass along to their neighbors when a new baby is born in the house.
The tradition of associating red beans with lucky legumes, though, isn’t based entirely on superstition. Some medical practitioners say that red beans help the urinary tract, cleansing the bladder of toxins. People swear by their ability to ease diarrhea. Vitamin B in beans helps to prevent beriberi, a serious degenerative disease. Most importantly, they help to quench thirst during summer.
There are several places near Ewha that sell good, old-style patbingsu. Gami Bunsik, a restaurant known for homemade noodles, is the oldest, if not the most popular eatery, offering the most classic recipe in town for 2,900 won.
Unlike most shops in the area, Gami’s clientele often consists of older customers who attended Ewha 30 years ago and are coming back to the shop with their partners and children.
The restaurant serves a bowl of shaved ice and drizzles condensed milk on top. The final touch is a large chunk of watermelon. It sounds simple, but everything is prepared to perfection, from the size of the bowl to the thickness of the bean paste.
Similarly, Waffle House (02-711-2649), near the entrance gate of Sookmyung Women’s University, offers a recipe just as classic as Gami’s. The red bean paste here is thicker than other patbingsu places in town. But almost every customer at Waffle House orders a side dish of toasted waffles, which have made the cafe famous. Patrons who order patbingsu here have developed the habit of dipping their waffles into the red bean sauce or vanilla ice cream. (The ice cream is a recent cave-in by the cafe to satisfy the cravings of younger customers. It’s a sign of concession. But times do change, and at least the old stuff is still available. And cheap, too.) The luscious duo of patbingsu and a waffle at Waffle House is available for 3,800 won.
On the subject of reasonable compromises, Renai, an upscale coffeehouse in Apgujeong-dong, offers a similar deal but made with a little more effort, for 9,000 won. The magic of the patbingsu at Renai is the homemade frozen yogurt, which is served on top of the shaved ice as a substitute for condensed milk. Koreans tend to use condensed milk as a replacement for Western-style whipping cream. You’ll see that almost every pseudo-Western Korean dessert uses condensed milk as a decoration or flourish. I’d rate the overall flavor at Renai good; the only thing barring greatness is the cafe’s use of canned beans.
Finally, if your pocket is in the mood for luxury, try patbingsu at Patio in Grand Hyatt, which is served on a large lump of ice that keeps your treat cold and fresh until you lay down your spoon. Served in a fancy green ceramic bowl are fresh seasonal berries, slices of various melons, rice cakes with sprinkles of powdered grains, mango sauce and a scoop of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
At 15,000 won a plate, it’s almost double the price you’d pay elsewhere. But in a country where a small container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream costs 13,000 won ― and a cup of mid-grade coffee at a hotel costs about 10,000 won ― you can’t complain about overpriced desserts.
Well, you can if you don’t mind eating at one of the local fast-food chains, which is why a growing number of burger places started selling patbingsu. If you keep a thrifty lifestyle ― and are less bound to tradition ― you can always check out patbingsu at McDonalds, Burger King or KFC. The three big fast-food chains offer patbingsu until September as a special menu item.
They’re cheap, fast, and often, inventive. Ingredients that go into the bowl vary from corn flakes to jelly beans.
Prices normally range between 2,500 won to 3,000 won, but they go down to 1,500 won around mid- July during special promotion periods.
Burger King has already begun its promotional sales. For 1,500 won, customers get a small paper bowl full of frozen strawberries, canned fruits, milk with vanilla ice cream and strawberry syrup on top.
Ice Berry, a franchise restaurant that specializes in frozen desserts, opened about 15 branches throughout Seoul, earning a reputation as “a smorgasbord of bingsu” due to its wide variety of choices. The good thing about having patbingsu at Ice Berry is the ability to hand-select the ingredients you like. Up to 15 menus is available at Ice Berry for customers to choose from. Afterward, you and your dessert companion can take a swim in the bowls; they’re almost as big as patbingsu itself.
by Park Soo-mee
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