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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Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan Bingsu

Summer is supposedly over, the traditional Korean calendar announced ‘the onset of autumn’ (ipchu 입추 立秋) already on August 8, 2019. 🍃 But temperatures are still high – somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius or 85 degrees Fahrenheit. ☀️🌡💦 It is still pretty hot. It is still a weather that demands for cool, refreshing drinks and ice cream or gelato or bingsu (빙수) or all of it… 🍹🍦🍨🍧 Don’t you think? 😎⛱

I’ve been cafe-hunting this week and ate so many frozen desserts in a row… 🤪 Never had a better excuse to eat ice cream and bingsu so that now I am able to present the following: A new page added to the category “Eating Out in Seoul” featuring our all-beloved frozen desserts in its various shapes, colors and textures…….👇

➡️ 🍓🍨🍦 Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan bingsu 🍧❄️🍍 ⬅️

❄️🍓❄️🍒❄️🍑❄️🍌❄️🍋❄️🍊❄️🍐❄️🍎❄️🍏❄️🥭❄️🍍❄️🥥❄️🥝❄️

Yes, ice cream, bingsu and other frozen treats are THIS important.

For easy-to-go ice cream, which you can find in regular supermarkets and convenience stores, simply refer to this list on a previous post.

[I know I’m an addict. But I also know I’m not the only one. 😜]

Easy-to-go vegan ice cream in Korea

These days, I often find myself thinking “Need… water… need… ice…” 🌡☀️😵

In an unstoppable impulse to find something that would quickly bring relief ❄️, I rummaged through various ice boxes, looking for ice cream. 🍦 (To be more precise, those of the popsicle kind – the “single servings”.) While checking the loooong labels with TINY letters on the colorful packaging, its contents were on the verge of melting [unforgivable sin!] and it felt like I would soon get more than just strange looks from shopkeepers… 😅

Even when something looked like it was a simple, water-based popsicle, its ingredient list surprisingly often revealed that there was some kind of animal component hidden inside. Beside mysterious additives for sweetness🍭, aromas👅 and color🌈, there was milk powder🥛, dairy-based calcium🥛 and gelatin🐷 [yikes!]! And sadly enough, those ingredients were not always marked in the allergen section. 🚫📝

Furthermore, even if one kind of ice cream contained only plant-based ingredients, that didn’t mean that another flavor of the same kind was also vegan. 🚫🌱Seriously each one needed confirmation.

🍦 It can be hard to find good ice cream.

But who thought the hunt for VEGAN ice cream would be this difficult and frustrating? 🌱🍦

[Whether the available vegan options are delightful after all, is a whole new topic…😣]

Anyhow, here’s a collection of meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free (though not guilt-free) vegan ice cream, which are commonly sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

✍️ This compilation is valid in summer 2019 and may gradually expand as (hopefully) new discoveries are made. ✍️

I’m an ice cream junkie, I know. 🍦🍨😍🍧❄️

If you have more time, money and patience to go to a (vegan) cafe that serves vegan ice cream, congratulations. Enjoy that blissful moment for me, while you’re at it!

So where ARE those cafes with vegan ice cream? 🍨 They are rare and more expensive than regular ice cream places… 💲😓 Currently, there exist merely a handful of such locations in Seoul. You can find an overview of sit-in locations serving various kinds of home-made frozen desserts on this page. 🛋💁‍♂️🍨🙋‍♀️

And what do YOU do in the heat of summer, when you don’t have access to your freezer (which is ideally filled with frozen fruit) but you are in desperate need of that sweet and refreshing cool-down THIS VERY INSTANT??? 🌊🤯❄️

[This is a serious question. Very curious about other survival strategies.]

Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… 🤓

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (찰토마토), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (카페 엘딘) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (토마토주스) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everything… In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (천은사) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” 🤓 Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. 💚🍅❤️

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the movie Shall We Dance (1937).

Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.