It’s nearly summer again, and that means it’s time for those special hot-weather treats: cold draft beer and fried chicken or naengmyeon, cold buckwheat noodles served in a bowl of floating ice.
One of the most Korean treats of the season is patbingsu, an icy cold dish that makes its way onto cafe menus as the temperature rises. Made of a stack of ice flakes (called bingsu in Korean) and topped with sweet adzuki beans (or pat), it is an old favorite and a tell-tale sign of summer.
Over the years, the dish has changed drastically, and cafe owners have experimented with all kinds of toppings to make their versions stand out. In fact, the-more-the-better rule was once the norm. From scoops of ice creams to rainbow-colored jelly candies and sugary syrup, patbingsu’s icy flakes were topped with nearly every imaginable ingredient.
Of many franchise coffee shops, Caffe Bene is the most experimental. It offers Wine Cheese Bingsu for 12,000 won ($10.50), nearly two times the cost of the ordinary dish. The ice flakes are served with drizzled nonalcoholic red wine, cheese cubes and icy blueberries.
Another bakery franchise, Tous Les Jours, offers Mango Tango Bingsu with chunks of mangoes for 7,000 won.
And A Twosome Place has Tiramisu Bingsu on its menu, a dish which is served with small pieces of tiramisu cake, adzuki beans and espresso.
It seems, though, that consumers have tired of the mess on top of their desserts – including the high price tag of the toppings – and are turning back to the basics. Stores in Seoul and around the country have increased their basic offerings, and places offering the simplest patbingsu menus are incredibly popular.
Mass-produced adzuki beans and sweet toppings like chocolate syrup and fruit rings are no where to be found at Meal Top in the Apgujeong branch of Hyundai Department Store, southern Seoul.
The famous cafe specializes in simple patbingsu made with homemade adzuki beans and topped with simple rice cakes. Visitors rave that they can actually taste the beans and love the ice flakes, made with milk instead of water for a smoother texture.
During peak season, they line up for up to two hours for the two minutes of pleasure they get from enjoying the small bowl. The original opened in 1985 and there are now a total of five branches at Hyundai Department Store locations across Seoul.
Other cafes have taken notice of Meal Top’s success and are trying their own versions of basic patbingsu, too.
One is Eomji Bean, recommended by producer and filmmaker Kim Jae-hwan.
“There are two things I can’t live without: patbingsu and naengmyeon,” said Kim, who soared to stardom last year with his documentary “The True Taste Show.” “I’ve been to almost every well-known place which serves patbingsu, and my favorite is Eomji Bean. I love the pure and mild taste of adzuki beans there.”
The Eomji Bean patbingsu is simple. Homemade adzuki beans are added to ice flakes along with condensed milk and a couple of rice cakes. Thin and crispy dates are also added to complement the cooling effect of the ice.
The two sisters who run the store use domestic adzuki beans cultivated by their mother, who lives in Hwasun, South Jeolla. Every dish of patbingsu is created from scratch by the sisters, who spend their time boiling adzuki beans and making rice cakes and condensed milk.
The first Eomji Bean shop opened in Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul, in 2005, and the sisters moved to Banpo-dong a couple of years ago. But they eventually shut down and moved to Hwasun.
“It was hard to make ends meet while using domestic adzuki beans in Banpo-dong because the rent was so high,” said Han Sun-hee, one of the two sisters. Domestic adzuki cost nearly three times as much as those from China.
“We appreciate our long-time customers who drive up to four hours from Seoul to here to eat our patbingsu,” she added.
When asked how best to enjoy patbingsu, Han urged fighting the desire to mush all the ingredients together.
“If you mix them all, it’s hard to uncover the unique taste of each ingredient,” she said.
Another patbingsu lover, chef Park Chan-il of the Italian restaurant La Comma near Hongik University, also enjoys his dessert plain and simple.
“You shouldn’t resort to other ingredients. Just pay attention to the texture of the ice flakes and the flavor of the adzuki beans,” Park said.
He recommends Go Danpatjuk, which is located near his restaurant. Danpatjuk refers to a bowl of sweet adzuki porridge.
“I like the patbingsu there because it is not sweet and contains no additives,” Park explained.
Go Danpatjuk is operated by Park Seong-eop, who is a huge fan of adzuki beans.
“I love foods which contain adzuki beans and recently drew inspiration from a trip to Japan. In Japan, there are many cafes and restaurants which specialize in snacks based on adzuki beans,” said Park.
“So I made up my mind to open a place which offers danpatjuk and patbingsu throughout the year,” he added. Go Danpatjuk opened about two months ago.
Only three dishes are available at Park’s place: danpatjuk and two types of bingsu, one made with milk ice flakes and the other with green tea ice flakes. All are served with rice cakes and boiled adzuki beans, which are prepared by Park each morning.
Architect Lim Hyoung-nam of Gaon Studio is a little easier to please.
“I often go to Paris Croissant these days near my office and order the basic patbingsu there,” she said, referring to the franchise bakery.
But when he wants an old-style treat, he heads to Taegeukdang in Jangchung-dong, central Seoul.
It is one of the longest-running bakeries in the nation, having been in business for about 60 years, and is worth a visit “even though all the employees are rude,” Park said.
By Sung So-young [email@example.com]