Wherever you go in Asia, shaved ice remains one of the more popular summertime treats. But what makes Korea’s version the best of the bunch? Patbingsu (팥빙수) literally means “red beans with ice”. It is probably known as South Korea’s national dessert. Its delightful shaved ice is sprinkled with sweet toppings such as chopped fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrup, and red bean paste. Many varieties of patbingsu exists in contemporary culture.
Other countries around Asia have their own kind of shaved ice desserts. These include the Baobing in China, and the Kakigori in Japan, as well as Halo-Halo from the Philippines, and Ais Kacang from Malaysia. Halo-Halo, in particular, is delightfully refreshing in which to indulge when adventuring around the hot and humid Philippine archipelago! However, in terms of taste, none of them can match the delights to be found when sampling patbingsu in South Korea!
The shaved ice dessert concept is undoubtedly a Korean invention, and as they say, the original is always the best! As far as I am aware, Korea’s shaved ice desserts are the only ones around the world that include the historic red bean paste, which in patbingsu dates back to the early days of the Joseon Dynasty (around the mid-15th century). It must be said, however, that not all patbingsu in Korea contains red bean paste these days, which somewhat dampens its authenticity. If “bingsu” means the shaved ice, then “pat” is the red bean paste. You may see “bingsu” on sale in Seoul or anywhere around Korea, but unless it is clearly defined as patbingsu, then you are not eating the real thing!
For me, the texture of patbingsu is unlike anything I have tried before. It feels far more flaky and yet at the same time softer than other shaved ice desserts across Asia. And then of course the distinctive red bean paste which gives it the unique flavour. I tried my first patbingsu at a café called “Dongbinggo” in Seoul, thanks to a recommendation from a friend at Hongik University, and it cost me 6,5oo Won (around £3.70). It had a lot of red beans sprinkled on top, as well as a healthy fresh fruit base, and I considered it to be good value for money. Similar desserts in Singapore will cost around S$8, that’s pretty much the same price.
For some ideas on where to find the best patbingsu in Seoul, check out a fantastic guide from the Visit Korea Tourism Board. If you cannot get to Seoul any time soon, then why not make your own patbingsu, with the Korean food legend Maangchi providing the recipe and step-by-step guide.