Ah, patbingsu (팥빙수, or affectionately known as “bingsu” for short). No trip to Korea is complete without having one of these shaved ice desserts… although I can’t say for sure that it’d be available in the winter. But then, why are you visiting Korea in the winter? It’s not a nice time to visit and I’m going off tangent.
The patbingsu culture seems to be alive and well in Korea, and so many different shops and cafes offered their variation, tempting us to indulge in all of them and be filled with bingsu goodness. But alas, the stomach can only handle so much, especially a mildly lactose-intolerant stomach.
I thought I really liked patbingsu, but my level of ‘like’ does not compare to my brother-in-law, Jason. He might be the ultimate patbingsu fanatic. I thought he was going to eat one everyday, but I guess everyone has their limits. We did, however, get to try a few different types, with one of them being my clear favourite (that I crown the Queen of All Patbingsu), and another one being a pretty lame rendition. So let’s start off chronologically on the great patbingsu adventure.
1. Easy Way
First up, we stopped at this random cafe called Easy Way while walking around the Myeongdong area. Our feet were swollen and on fire from being on them all day (seriously, I did not realize how much I don’t walk until I went to Korea), the air outside was still warm, so it felt like patbingsu would be the perfect way to cool down and relax. This appears to be some patbingsu/bubble tea hybrid, complete with pearls. The ice was crushed a little too course so I was finding myself biting down on chunks of ice. Which is one of the worst sensations on the teeth next to biting on aluminium foil. The crumbly bits on top tasted like regular old granola cereal, which I found really odd – like I was eating some weird sweet breakfast concoction. It confused me a little bit. This bingsu seemed like it was having an identity crisis, but they do get some points for the cute bunny ears made with almonds on the mound of ice cream. I’m a sucker for things like that.
Score: 5/10. 2 points for each almond bunny ear.
2. 희동아 엄마다
Next up, 희동아 엄마다 (It’s Huidong’s Mom – that’s my lame direct translation). I learned about this place via this Seoulistic article (on a side note, Seoulistic is a fantastic resource for all things Korean and I found their information incredibly helpful in planning my trip). I was basically sold at the description of the injeolmi (인절미), which is a type of tteok covered in sweetened powder. We hit this place after touring one of the traditional palaces (if you ask me which one, I couldn’t tell you), as it was nearby. This cafe is located in the Samcheongdong area, where the streets are like alleyways lined with tons of shops and crowded with so many people. We passed by the cafe trying to find it, but finally located it with a sign beckoning us down a narrow walkway. Basically, if you’re not purposefully looking for this place, you would never know that it exists as it’s tucked away from the main drag. Oh, but everyone should purposefully look for this place. Because it has the Queen of All Patbingsu, that’s why.
First of all, this place is super cute and cosy. It’s hard to explain, but it made me feel all giddy inside just sitting in there. Like the super cuteness gets right into your bones and spreads happiness throughout your body. How can you not like a place that makes you feel that way?
This place only serves one type of bingsu – and that’s all it needs because this one bingsu is absolute perfection. We could tell it was lovingly crafted. It may not look like much from the outside, but inside it’s layered delicately with the perfect amount of red beans encased in the super fine crushed ice laced with milk. Topped with those fresh injeolmi and a heart-shaped tteok… giddiness at its peak. Our server told us not to mix it together due to the layering of the ice and red beans. Sure enough, as we dug our spoons in eagerly to taste this dessert from heaven, we nearly always hit the perfect ratio of ice milk to beans. YES THAT IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, PEOPLE. Too good for words.
Score: 9.9/10. I know I said it’s perfection. It’s only a 0.1 point deduction for not including more injeolmi. That injeolmi beckons me in my dreams.
3. Caffe Bene
Now every other patbingsu mentioned here is not even going to come close to the one above, right? Well, almost right. Let’s continue with this Cookies & Cream rendition from Caffe Bene, a chain cafe that’s almost like the Starbucks of Korea in that you can find them virtually everywhere. Funny story: on our first morning, we wanted to be adventurous and ALL CRAZY-LIKE, so we headed to one of these Caffe Bene locations at about 9:30am and Mark tried to order a Strawberry Patbingsu. Apparently they do not have patbingsu available that early. For why? I suppose we looked pretty crazy trying to get dessert at 9:30am. Anyways, so this time around it was evening so they couldn’t refuse us patbingsu if we ordered one. We settled on this kind and the picture really doesn’t do the size any justice. The thing was HUGE. Like a glass bucket of ice milk, cookies, and ice cream. This one was okay, nothing special. The ice was way too course (again, chunks), and too much whipped cream on top. Basically a lactose intolerant person’s worst dairy nightmare.
Score: 4/10. I’m being generous because of the guy who smartly refused to serve us strawberry bingsu at 9:30am. It was for the best.
Here we have Dalsuda, a cafe located in the trendy Hongdae area. Their claim to fame is an old, traditional machine that shaves the ice like fluffy snow. Well, I was intrigued for sure, because if there’s one thing I don’t like in patbingsu, it’s course ice. This place seems to be very popular as it was consistently busy when we were there. I didn’t quite understand the ordering system, so I let Mark take the reigns. Basically, there’s a machine right by the door that you punch your order in and pay. But the machine was in a bad mood and ate Mark’s money, so we had to wait around until one of the employees opened up the machine to retrieve the bill. In the mean time, they took our order at the counter and we waited.
I opted for the classic, traditional milk ice, while the adventurous Mark got an assorted nuts & cookies type. The beans with a couple of tteok come in separate bowls and you can actually get refills. I enjoyed the concept of controlling how much bean to have in each bite, but I did have to get a refill as I found one bowl wasn’t enough for the milk ice. So, was it like fluffy snow? Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve had ice shaved quite so delicately and smoothly before. The milk itself was slightly sweetened and paired really well with the beans. I declare this patbingsu as my second favourite, very close behind the Queen of All Patbingsu. I think if this one had unlimited injeolmi, it might’ve taken top spot. In the end, Mark got his money back and we were happily filled from delicious bingsu.
Score: 9/10. A solid, delicious patbingsu.
5. Random Cafe that I don’t remember the name of (I blame the cold meds)
This last one doesn’t quite count because I didn’t try any of it, but I had to include it because corn flakes. Corn flakes on patbingsu! So weird but fantastic. This was at a cafe right near the hotel we stayed at for the last few days in Seoul. I was still trying to get over a nasty cold I had caught when we were at Jeju Island (that’s what sleeping right underneath the powerful A/C vent will do to a normally healthy person), so I didn’t partake in this one. It’s a special green-tea patbingsu that seemed to go over pretty well with Jason.
Score: 6/10. Because corn flakes.
And so concludes the Patbingsu Edition of Seoul Eats. To be honest, I wish I had tried more patbingsu, but we were always so full from eating other delicious things. I’d love to try a few other ones listed on the Seoulistic article (for research purposes, of course) next time I visit, and put together an ultimate definite list of all the patbingsu.