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With the monsoon season finishing, and as South Korea reaches high temperatures, the way most choose to cool down with a dessert is by sharing a bowl of patbingsu (팥빙수). In it’s primitive form, patbingsu is red beans with shaved ice. Pat (팟) was once a luxurious snack item, and as South Korea moved from developing to it’s modern economic position, pat become inexpensive but the stigma behind the dessert, which dates back as far as the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), kept a special place in the culture as a crafty dessert.
Now inexpensive (about 5,000 won), it can be found almost everywhere. There are many variations, but essentially it consists of ice cream, fresh fruit, ddeok (떡, or rice cakes), syrup, red beans, condensed milk, syrup, and nut powder on a mound of shaved ice. This modern day version started with the increase of cold read beans during the Japanese annexation (1910-1945) and evolved during the Korean war with the introduction of western products like cereal, fruit cocktail, and syrups.
But the dessert is truly Korean: rice cakes, a common street food snack, added with red beans (also known as adzuki beans, hence the Japanese introduction), makes a unique Korean take on dessert that has grown internationally. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il introduced patbingsu in 2011, which has grown a demand for more shaved ice and fruit juice. In the U.S., patbingsu has moved from Los Angeles to Boise (Idaho) to Jacksonville (Florida), where celebrity chef Alton Brown posted his dessert on Instagram. It’s a summertime combination of sweet, crunchy, smooth, and for many Koreans on dates, as romantic as the nostalgic milkshake with two straws.
The key to the crunchy part, rather than a slow evolution to mush over time, is the cereal. Some American versions use Fruity Pebbles, which seems more funky and hipster than elegant. L.A. is full of Korean influence and churns out all different types, including the green tea version, also popular in Korea. But this too can get mushy. A stronger cereal is the key. The best versions, like this one in L.A., are the ones that are Fruity Pebbles free.
With summer heading towards the final stretch, and your city without patbingsu, there is a way to make it at home. If your kitchen is like most others, you probably don’t have an ice shaver. So, frozen milk is an option as well. See the video below for how to make patbingsu like a Korean hanging out on the Han River in Seoul.