Mountains of snow and icy clouds: Korean Bingsu 빙수

Anyone who tried it won’t forget the refreshing experience of eating this typical Korean dessert: Bingsu.

Milk-based Bingsu garnished with persimmon and jujube (daechu 대추) at Oknumong 옥루몽, Seoul 2017.

What is Bingsu? What is Patbingsu?

So you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it yet?
Let me TRY to explain it in words…

  • Spoonfuls of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bliss.
  • The ultimate cool-down for tongue and tummy.
  • Your [childhood] dreams about catching snowflakes with your mouth come true. (This snow actually tastes GOOD!)
  • Fantasies of eating fluffy, frozen clouds floating in the sky. Of course those clouds are icy! It’s cold up there!
  • … [I better stop here, before my sugar-fueled imagination takes my mind to even stranger places…🤪]

Anyways, the name “bingsu” itself seems rather unexciting, it translates simply to “frozen water” based on the following Sino-Korean characters:
氷 frozen, snow (bing 빙) ❄️
+ 水 water (su 수) 💧

Likewise, the origins of bingsu seem to relate to actual snow which has been sweetened with things such as honey or fruits.🍯🍓 Hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago. But eating freshly fallen snow is a custom that has been observed in various cultures. Today, desserts similar to bingsu exist in other countries – with varying toppings and different names.* The characteristic of Korean bingsu, then, is combining ice with a sweet sauce made from red beans called pat (팥). Hence, patbingsu (팥빙수) may be the most common name for the Korean dessert. 🇰🇷

But Korean bingsu has drastically developed within the past decades.

Food stall displaying image of old-style bingsu. Buyeo, summer 2019.

At least since the 1950s, the “frozen water” was garnished with diversifying ingredients. As modern Western-style ingredients became more easily available and fashionable, soon milk or cream was poured over the ice and condensed milk was used as an additional sauce, beside the classic red bean paste.🥛 Common other toppings included pieces of rice cake🍡, fruit jelly🍊, canned fruit cocktail🍍, corn flakes🌽 and perhaps also those pricey imported nuts🥜. To top things off, bingsu could be crowned with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream🍦. Adding a cherry🍒 in the center would eventually complete it – at least in the eyes of Korean singer Yoon Jong Shin (윤종신), who expresses his love for the dessert in the song Patbingsu (팥빙수, 2007).

Considering these toppings, bingsu can hardly be appealing to vegans. 🚫🌱 Sometimes it is not even veggie-friendly if gelatin-containing fruit jellies are used! 🐖 Still, when bingsu was made following the old-fashioned method, it was possible to customize orders and request to omit specific unwanted toppings.

However, in recent years, bingsu has been evolving radically. It is changing not just in terms of ingredients as new toppings and flavors are constantly being created, but also thanks to technical progress. The regular crushed ice, which is (easily) produced by strong blenders, is being replaced by frozen liquids which are processed by high-tech machines. Depending on the machine, bingsu comes in various textures ranging from snowflakes🌨 to fluffy layers of thin ice.❄️ The most common base for this ice, however, is not pure water anymore. 🚫💧 Instead, it is a blend of sweetened dairy🥛, which may be additionally flavored with fruit extracts🍓, chocolate🍫, green tea powder🍵 or similar aromas.

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What does Bingsu taste like? What types of Bingsu are there?

As a consequence, there is an endless diversity of bingsus now. Naturally, there exists patbingsu, which today is a milk-based shaved ice with red bean paste. Beside the classic pat topping, there are variations with and without pat, e.g. fruit bingsu, green tea bingsu, injeolmi rice cake bingsu, chocolate bingsu, and so many more. These names describe the main flavor and most distinct ingredients of any given bingsu. If it’s called “strawberry bingsu” (ttalgi bingsu 딸기빙수), then expect strawberry topping. “Oreo bingsu” is garnished with Oreo cookies (maybe also crumbles of Oreos underneath the milky ice). A “green tea patbingsu” (nokcha / geurinti / malcha patbingsu 녹차/그린티/말차 팥빙수) is a tea-flavored bingsu with red bean topping.** You get the idea.

Only when something is labelled as “old-fashioned bingsu” (yennal bingsu 옛날빙수) or “traditional bingsu” (jeontong bingsu 전통빙수), it gets a bit confusing. Eventually, you may end up with different things. Either it is a bingsu with a potpourri of toppings similar to those described in Yoon Jong Shin’s homage to patbingsu: Red bean paste, (canned or fresh) fruit, cornflakes, (ice) cream and some type of sweet sauce (condensed milk, chocolate sauce and/or fruit jam). Alternatively, the bingsu is held rather simple and subtle – toppings are limited to red bean sauce (and maybe some rice cakes, soy bean powder or similar things for garnish) on a milk-flavored base. This kind of bingsu is normally less sweet and aims to accommodate people with an “old-fashioned” or “conservative” taste – generally elderly people or so-called purists. Yet another type concerns the texture of the frozen base: Apart from toppings, the term “old-fashioned” may refer to the “old” way of making bingsu with crushed ice. To be more precise, ice cubes are cut into more or less small pieces by a blender or a similar machine. The resulting consistency is not quite as fine and watery as a slushy but it is rather grainy, so you can see and feel individual pieces of ice. Hence, you will be able to chew ice crystals and there is a certain crunch to it. This stands in stark contrast to modern versions of bingsu which are produced using modern bingsu-machines.

Patbingsu garnished with slices of chestnut at Jangkkobang 장꼬방, Seoul 2019.

Now, this is actually were the REAL bingsu talk may begin.

Bakery Cafe offering various flavors of Bingsu in two different textures: Soft shavings versus ice. Seoul, summer 2019.

Contrary to bingsu with grainy texture, which may be referred to as “ice bingsu” (eoreum bingsu 얼음빙수), the consistency of most modern bingsus exhibits a high level of fineness. There is no need for chewing (except for chunky toppings), since the frozen particles instantly melt in your mouth. The texture is soooooo soft! Varying with the type of machine, the shaved ice comes in differing shapes and sizes. Most popular is the one which transforms milky liquids instantly into tiny ice crystals reminiscent of powdery snow, called “snowflake” (nunkkot 눈꽃) in Korean. There are also bingsus featuring elongate pieces of shaved ice looking like short, hollow sticks, although this is a rather rare variety. At some places, the frozen base has a texture as soft and fluffy as cotton candy. This kind comes second to the “snowflake bingsu” (nunkkot bingsu 눈꽃빙수) and is largely referred to as “planer bingsu” (daepae bingsu 대패빙수), since it is created from planing frozen substances to acquire flat, elongated wooden ice chips. In a similar method, thin layers are cut off from a block of ice and the shavings are eventually sweetened with drizzles of (milky) sauces to make bingsu.
[An extra section dealing with the quality of bingsu may be added later.]

Overall, modern bingsus have a more polished look compared to the rustic, old-fashioned ones. While some contemporary bingsus are modestly garnished with one or two ingredients, there are varieties which are equipped with an imposing assortment of toppings. Again, a potpourri of sweet treats but on a whole different of level. 🔼🆙️ There are bingsus which feature ice cream🍦, are decorated with shavings of chocolate🍫, filled with cookies🍪, have a piece of cake on the side🍰 or are garnished with macarons🍬. Just to name a few of the common toppings. Apart from those, you can encounter bingsu dressed up in cotton candy or adorned with tapioca pearls… or powdered with cheese…🧀 [No kidding.]

Let’s be honest, when it’s time for dessert but you can’t decide on which one, what better choice is there than bingsu? 🍧 Because you can have multiple desserts AT THE SAME TIME!!!🍭🤩 Everything your sweet-tooth loves is combined literally inside one single dish: hyper-pimped Korean bingsu. 🍧💫 Edible makeup and glitter as sugary (chocolate) sprinkles. 👄 Dessert decadence. [More on food and fashion in contemporary South Korea here.]

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How to eat Bingsu and where to find it

First of all, bingsu is normally not eaten alone. ❌👤 It is a dish, that is shared in company, as a special treat or dessert after a proper meal. [Exceptions due to individual circumstances may apply.] While single-serving bingsus are available at some coffee shops these days, the regular bingsu size is calculated to serve two or more persons. ✅👥 So if you want to eat bingsu, you need to find a friend who is willing to share it with you. [Or whom YOU are willing to share it with.] Anyways, this explains the question of “How many spoons do you need?” (숟가락 몇개 드릴까요?) which normally follows an order of bingsu. The average price of 9000 KRW to 15.000 KRW for one bingsu also suggests that it is [originally] designed to feed several persons.

Advertising Bingsu menu as “Summer Snow” in Seoul 2019.

Once you recruited your bingsu-buddy and have a bingsu-date, the next thing you need is actual bingsu. 👫🍧👬🍧👭 So where do you find bingsu? During the summer time, bingsu is available at most coffee shops (curiously enough, not [yet?] Starbucks), bakery cafes as well as certain fast food chains in Korea. These locations normally have eye-catching advertisements for their bingsu creations, so you cannot miss them. ☀️🍧⛱ At some point in the year, however, they will disappear from the seasonal menus and won’t show up until next summer. But rest assured! There exist various places which offer bingsu throughout the year, including bingsu specialty shops! 🌨🍧☃️

Next, how do you eat bingsu? What is the proper way of eating bingsu? This has been a polarizing topic ever since. It is beyond doubt, that the one and only tool is a (long) spoon. 🥄 But there is discussion about the order and technique of eating bingsu. Some begin with stirring the bingsu to properly mix the toppings with the frozen base. These people represent the “mix-eaters” (bibyeomeok 비벼먹). As a consequence, the carefully assembled bingsu, which may have resembled a mountainous landscape of sweet treats, is instantly transformed into a colorful mush spotted with chunks of various shapes and sizes. 🏔 ➡️🤮 Opposed to this, there is the faction of the non-mixers, the so-called peomeok (퍼먹) – literally “scoop-up-eaters”. Their technique involves eating bingsu roughly from top to bottom, which means each bite has a different taste depending on the topping they scooped up. In general, the mixing technique is most prevalent among fans of the old-fashioned bingsu. Non-mixers seem to possess a pronounced sense for visual aesthetics as opposed to the mix-eaters, who prefer an even taste over appearance. [Better choose your bingsu-party wisely to avoid conflicts!] Furthermore, even among non-mixers, there are various strategies for tackling the frozen mountain. While some dig towards the center eager to find the treasures hidden inside (some bingsus are filled!), others shovel even layers off of their bingsu. The difference is that, in effect, the vertical digging eventually causes the cave of shaved ice to collapse, whereas the horizontal excavation technique may create a bottom layer barren of flavorful toppings.

Another thing regarding the consumption of bingsu are additional toppings. Some locations serve bingsu with a complimentary sauce on the side, e.g. extra condensed milk, cold espresso or green tea sauce. This is to ensure that consumers are able to enjoy leftover shaved ice with the proper flavor. According to personal preference and with granted permission (!) from your bingsu-buddy, pour the sauce over the bingsu and thus control the level of sweetness in your bingsu.

Last but not least, a final point that deserves consideration when consuming bingsu, is speed. ⏰ You certainly don’t want to let your bingsu melt into soup 🍲 and then go fishing for chunky bites. 🎣 Or do you??? And if you gobble it up too quickly, you might experience “brain freeze”⚡️, although it’s not as easy to get with bingsu as it is with slushies, frozen smoothies or milkshakes.🥤 At least attempt to find an adequate pace.

Long story short, there is no right or wrong way of eating bingsu, as long as you enjoy it.

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🌱 Is Bingsu vegan? How to get vegan Bingsu 🌱

The brief answer to above question is:
No. Bingsu is not vegan by default. 🚫🌱
But there are ways for you to still get a taste of bingsu!👇

In general, vegans may have initial difficulty partaking in this part of Korean food culture. However, you can make your own vegan bingsu with your good-old blender or a food processor that is strong enough to cut ice cubes or frozen fruit. In essence, the formula for home-made, old-fashioned bingsu is simple: Crushed ice topped with whatever sweet treats your heart may desire. The finer you manage to crush the ice, the smoother the texture of the final bingsu.

Otherwise, if you want to eat out with friends in Korea, there are the following options…

  • a) Find a location which offers old-fashioned bingsu AND speak enough Korean to customize it by omitting any dairy or possibly egg-based toppings. 🗣🇰🇷🚫🥛🥚🍪🍦🍰🍫 (Warning: Plain, crushed ice with fewer toppings may be considered to taste bland by shop keepers. 🤷‍♀️🤷‍♂️)
  • b) Find a coffee shop or bakery cafe that uses non-dairy substances (e.g. fruit juices) for their frozen base. ❄️🍊❄️🍓❄️🍍 Again, you need to confirm that the toppings are vegan, too. (In case of high sensitivity or allergies, be aware that there may be traces of dairy left on the machines.)
  • c) Pilgrimage to a vegan coffee shop. At present, there is literally only a handful of cafes in Seoul, which offer bingsu made with plant-based milk instead of dairy. 🌱🥛 You can find a list of locations here. Some of these locations use bingsu-machines which produce high-quality snowflake consistency – a texture impossible to achieve at home unless you own the [expensive] professional equipment.

After all, enjoying 100% plant-based, vegan bingsu is a challenge but no impossibility! 🌱🍧💚

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Notes by the author

* Just to mention a few, there’s the American ‘snow cone’ and Hawaiian ‘shave ice’. Chinese versions are called “bàobīng” (刨冰) or “[hóngdòu] shābīng” ([红豆]沙冰) [with red beans], and the Japanese variant is referred to as “kakigōri” (かき氷).

** There are people, who dislike the sweetened red bean paste (pat 팥) or have an allergy against beans and legumes, hence the common distinction in the name.

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