Yesterday I asked my mother-in-law, Choi Jin-shim, 68, if she remembered her first pat-bingsu (ice flakes with red bean). She said, “Yes, I had it as a teenager in the 1960s at a bakery. It was simply crushed ice topped with sweetened red beans and a few pieces of roasted injeolmi (a type of rice cake).” She explained that long ago sugar and ice were luxuries so to have pat-bingsu was a special treat.
I asked her if they had milk on it and she said, no. The milk, she said, would be frozen to make an ice milk and this would be topped with red beans.
Pat-bingsu over the years has gone through so many evolutions. However, the basic elements my mother described are there: sugar, red beans, ice, milk, and rice cake.
Searching further, I asked food historian Professor Jia Choi PhD. where pat-bingsu came from. She told me that the habit of eating ice started from about 3,000 BC in China. They would take snow and top it with honey or fruit juice.
In Korea, during the Joseon dynasty, ice was stored in storage centers called bing-go. This ice was given to nobles and to the royalty. They would take the ice and make a cool, iced fruit punch called hwachae. Professor Choi also explained that pat-bingsu was introduced in Korea when Korea was a colony of Japan.
Milk, one of the main ingredients of pat-bingsu, was considered taboo in the early 1900s. Historian Robert Neff quoted Horace N. Allen (who lived in Korea from 1887-1905): it is “remarkable that in Korea where are to be found such fine large cattle, there is no use made of milk, and this too in a land of such poverty that it would seem that all proper foods would be cherished as such. True they know the use of milk, since children, invalids and the aged use human milk, but the milking of cows is not practiced by the people.”
One early instance of pat-bingsu came from one of Korea’s first bakeries, Taegeukdang, which was established in 1946. Their Monaka ice cream bar was a huge hit and they had lines around the block. Their pat-bingsu was also popular and had shaved ice covered with milk and sweetened condensed milk, sweetened red beans, fruit cocktail, rice cake, and corn flakes. The corn flakes, fruit cocktail, and sweetened condensed milk were new ingredients introduced by the US military after the Korean War.
Pat-bingsu soon became a staple item at almost all bakeries, cafes, and hotels during the summer and it evolved to become an elaborate delicacy.
Soon there were versions of pat-bingsu using green tea, black tea, red wine, coffee, fruit, yogurt, red wine, cheese cake, and more. What was once a summertime delicacy is now served all year long.
In 2014, there is a trend for pat-bingsu cafes such as Seolbing and Okrumong that make their own red bean paste and use special ice shavers that make “snowflake” ice. The trend is for original-style pat-bingsu that is ice, milk, and homemade red bean paste. This seasonal melon-bingsu is served in a half of a honeydew. The crushed ice in the bottom is mixed with coconut, almonds, milk, red beans and then topped with balls of sweet honeydew. Strawberry-bingsu topped with cake, ice cream, and lots of fresh strawberries has also been popular this year.
In recent times, takeout bingsu has been popular. The shaved ice is served in a plastic cone that has a large bowl around it. Here the ice, milk, and other ingredients are added and it is easy to walk with.
Even though there are constantly new summer desserts like juices, ice creams, and more entering Korea; pat-bingsu is the constant. It will be exciting to see the next evolution of this classic dessert.
Melon-Bingsu and other Creative Bingsu
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