Is there anything better for cooling down from the punishing rays of the sun than a massive pile of tasty shaved ice? Before there was air conditioning, there was bingsu—one of the most popular Korean desserts when the weather’s hot. At its core, bingsu (sometimes spelled “bingsoo” in English) is a giant mountain of fluffy milk-based shaved ice, typically topped with chopped fruit, sweetened condensed milk, mochi, and sweet red beans.
There’s a word in Korean that I associate with bingsu: shiwonhada, typically translated as “refreshing.” Where I grew up in Flushing, Queens, Korean cafés line the streets, and once the weather gets warm, every café offers their take on bingsu. As a summertime treat, my mom would take me to split a bowl of bingsu to cool off.
Bingsu is one of many different types of Asian shaved ice desserts, and it shares similarities to other treats such as Filipino halo-halo, Japanese kakigori, and Taiwanese bao bing, to name a few. Bingsu has a long history in Korea, dating back as early as the Joseon dynasty, which began in 1392. Seokbinggo, meaning “stone ice storage,” was effectively an ice warehouse made of rocks, and was the key to Korea’s ability to have ice in the middle of summer. It’s said that Korean officials in charge of the royal icebox would crush the ice to make the earliest form of bingsu and eat this icy dessert as a way to keep cool in the heat of the summer, adding red bean paste for sweetness. As a result, patbingsu—which translates to “sweet red bean shaved ice”—is the most traditional variety, but there are many options to explore.
What differentiates the ice shavings in bingsu from some other shaved ice desserts is that the bingsu ice shavings are made from a base of dairy and sugar. Compared to just freezing water, the milk and sweetened condensed milk mixture lends to a texture that is less crystallized and fluffier.
During the summers when I would visit my relatives in Korea, it wasn’t uncommon for me to eat bingsu nearly every day due to the sweltering heat and humidity there. One of my favorite versions is injeolmi bingsu. Injeolmi are Korean glutinous rice cakes that are coated with roasted soybean powder, and they’re a very popular topping for bingsu, probably second after patbingsu. These days in Korea, bingsu variations and toppings are endlessly creative and colorful. I’ve seen bingsu topped with macarons, soft-serve ice cream, chocolate, cheesecake, boba pearls, whipped cream, and all kinds of fresh fruit.
How do you make bingsu?
Good bingsu starts with the ice: A foundation of soft, snowy, flavorful ice is of utmost importance. At my last restaurant job, I used a huge shaved ice machine to make maple “snow” for one of our desserts, and it produced the fluffiest texture. But if you don’t have a shaved ice machine in your arsenal (I’m usually not one for single-use kitchen gadgets), there are a few ways to go about making snow.