I go to Seoul, Korea, at least once a year, and each time I go, I try to figure out what’s going on. Not with real issues like South Korean attitudes toward North Korea, or who is likely to win the next presidential election. I’m on vacation — I’m only interested in things like, what is the latest trend in patbingsoo, or Korean shaved ice?
In Korea, patbingsoo, or shaved ice with sweet red beans, is so popular that it’s on the menu at KFC. When I was growing up, patbingsoo was colorful and bounteous — shaved ice with milk, then a big pile of sweet red beans, a scoop of some terrible low-grade ice cream, mass-produced little mochi cakes, and lots of little fruit jellies and/or fruit cocktail. I always pushed my ice cream to the side. It was delicious but tacky.
But patbingsoo now seems to be trending minimalist and classy. My sister Mona and I were in Seoul for over a week before we finally sat down to our first shared patbingsoo (and patbingsoo is always shared, another example of how communal Korean food is), but when we did, we were wowed.
The first was at a cafe chain I’d never seen before called Mango Six, which sells fruit shakes, tapioca drinks, and baked goods, as well as a tremendous shaved ice. My sister’s been obsessed with a new Korean drama called 신사의 품격, (something like “A Gentleman’s Dignity”), and Mango Six clearly has a product placement deal with the show. One of the main characters, who has a haircut that is so bad it’s awesome, runs a Mango Six franchise.
Their version is very simple and beautiful. First, the ice flakes are very fine, barely flakes at all. There’s a good sprinkling of my favorite traditional ingredient, toasted soybean flour. The sticky rice cakes are very high quality, and the round ones that look like hard-boiled eggs cut in half actually have a mango-flavored center. Best of all, what is normally crappy ice cream has been replaced with a scoop of tangy frozen yogurt.
The second patbingsoo we shared was very different but equally inspired. Our cousin Ron told us that the best patbingsoo in Seoul was at Deux Cremes on trendy Garosu-gil. It did not disappoint. I have no idea if their tarts are any good, but if I’m going to judge them by their patbingsoo, this is a cafe that thinks carefully about the small but important things.
It looks almost like a modernist sculpture, no? We ordered the green tea bingsoo, and when we saw other tables getting their patbingsoo, my sister and I panicked, thinking maybe it didn’t come with any red beans. Silly us.
It’s buried in the middle! How brilliant is that? It means you don’t end up eating too much pat with your first bites; the ratio of red beans to ice stays more constant as you dig deeper and deeper into the bowl. The flakes were not nearly as fine as at Mango Six — they were actually a little coarse and the only thing I didn’t like — but the green tea flavor was real and the scoop of ice cream high-quality. Plus, they add salty honey-roasted peanuts. So brilliant, I didn’t even miss not having little rice cakes.
Both versions are a little pricey, about 12,000 or 14,000 won, but as I mentioned before, they’re supposed to be shared. Two is a good number, but really, three or four friends could be pretty happy sharing one as well.
And it’s not just the fancy cafes that are doing these stripped-down bings. Paris Baguette, the ubiquitous bakery chain, was advertising an “old-fashioned” bingsoo with just ice, beans, and injeolmi, the soft squares of rice cakes dusted with soybean flour.