The concept of dessert in most cultures is arbitrary. I have found that most cultures don’t desire something sweet after having a meal. This is also the case in Korea. In Korea sweets were mainly considered to be fortifying or medicinal in nature. Honey is highly valued for it is believed to be a medicinal ingredient full of nutrients. A popular and sweet rice cake that Koreans have is called yaksik. It is made from glutinous rice, dates, chestnuts, honey, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Koreans would value this treat for it is made from many nutritious and fortifying foods. However, to my foreign guests, I simply explain that it is a “cinnamon honey rice cake dessert” rather than a medicinal, fortified rice cake. When I think of the disparity of thought between Asians and Westerners on food, I think of Mary Poppins when she sings, “a spoonful of sugar will make the medicine go down.” In my Asian household, I was told by my mother, “if it tastes bitter or bad, it means the medicine is working.” So, while Korea does not have “dessert” in the western sense, it does enjoy sweets, drinks, and desserts. Today, I’d like to introduce you to some Korean summertime ice desserts.
Seokbinggo: Ice Storage for the Rich Gives Birth to Patbingsu
According to the Korea Herald, Seokbinggo was the government office in charge of the royal ice box during the Joseon period (1392-1910). The place would be underground or caves where they would store ice. They would sometimes share ice with fellow officials, “who enjoyed it finely crushed and mixed with fruit for a granita-like dessert.” A long time ago, they didn’t have freezers to make ice so this was truly a luxury.
At the time ice during summer was something that only the privileged could have but over time the costs of ice production went down and it became a popular summertime treat. The Korea Herald article places the origin of modern-style of red bean shaved ice at a famous bakery in Jangchung-dong. This place is also famous for its ice cream sandwiches. Its patbingsu (ice flackes with red bean) has lots of milk over crunchy ice topped with red beans and fruit cocktail. The best part of its patbingsu is the corn flakes and the sweet and chewy rice cake candy.
These days there are many variations of this dish such as green tea-patbingsu, coffee-bingsu, wine-bingsu, watermelon-bingsu, and more. There is even an old-fashioned patbingsu that has milk, beans, rice cake, and roasted bean powder. However, from my research this “old-fashioned” bingsu is a modern invention.
In short, you can make this dish with anything and it is pretty easy to make. If you want to try making it yourself, all you need to do is take 1.5 cups of crushed ice topped with 1/8th a cup of cold milk. On top, add two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk and then three tablespoons of red bean paste. You can get the sweetened red bean paste at Asian groceries. Then you can top it with whatever else you would like: watermelon, apple, pineapple, corn flakes, rice cakes, cereal, whipped cream, ice cream, nuts, etc. The general rule is that crunchy or chewy works best.
Recently, the snow flake dessert trend has been booming. My favorite place to get it is from Sulbing, which has fine ice that is like sweet, milky, freshly fallen snow. Their famous bingsu is their injeolmi bingsu, which has roasted bean and nut powder over the ice with almonds and chewy rice cakes. They are constantly making new types of shaved ice such as strawberry, mango, sweet potato, and more.
Iced tea & Hwachae: Before There Were Ades
It seems that these days, lemonade, blueberry-ade and other “ades” are used to beat the heat. However, before there were ades there were hwachae. These are traditional punches made with fruit, berries, or other sweetened juices. Often they are acidic and drunk as an after dinner digestive.
The most famous hwachae is made from omija (schizandra) or the red, five-spice berry. It is a brilliant red color and has a tart, bitter, sweet, and salty taste. Another famous one is sujeonggwa, which is made by simmering ginger and cinnamon sticks and then sweetening the drink with sugar or honey and adding dried persimmons. The punch is garnished with pine nuts.
Maesil, or green plum, hwachae and iced tea are also very common and popular. This is the fruit of the plum tree. In early spring, clusters of small green plums can be seen hanging from the branches of trees amid the white petals. Unfortunately, there is only a brief period when green plums are available in the market. Maesil tea strengthens the digestive system and prevents diarrhea and constipation. It also helps cleanse the body of toxins and boosts immunity against food poisoning. This is a very versatile ingredient and the syrup is used in sauces, alcohol, and teas.
If it gets too hot in Korea, now you know how you can refresh yourself.
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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