The Great Bingsu Review [July]

Welcome to The Great Bingsu Review (Round 2) in which I rate the bingsu I had in July from worst to best.


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5.5/10

When I saw the advertisement for this marshmallow bingsu at Cafe Blog near Ewha, I knew I had to try it. I’ve grown from the mischievous child who ate marshmallow fluff straight from the container (much to my parents’ dismay) into a respectable (?) young adult (???) who now feeds her marshmallow addiction safely through Rice Krispies treats or s’mores. This bingsu took me right back to my childhood though because this is straight up marshmallow. As lovely as the milk ice is, it has no other flavor than syrupy sweetness, and the whipped cream was shockingly plain. This one got real boring, real quick. I spent most of my time just eating the marshmallows. Guess what’s on top though? Korea’s answer to pop-rocks. And they ROCK. But they don’t rock hard enough to land this bingsu a high score on the charts. Though innovative, this was like eating a bowl of pure sugar. No flavor. None. Zip. Nada. I mean, could they at least hook a sista up with some vanilla or somethin’?! You know what’d be awesome? A S’mores bingsu.

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7.5/10

This green tea bingsu is from a cafe in 북촌. The ice is very crunchy, but gets softer towards the middle of the dish. It’s very off-putting. You practically break your teeth as soon as you start eating and then practice extreme caution when eating the rest of the bingsu. It’s hard to enjoy the nice flavor with your guard up. The bottom layers of ice also carry most of the green tea flavor which is not at all bitter like the O’sulloc bingsu (reviewed below) but not as sweet as a matcha kit-kat. The texture of the 떡 is much closer to what I’d expect from Japanese mochi: soft and delicate. And SWEET. They were almost like….marshmallows? The red beans don’t taste like they’re from a can. Though bananas don’t fit in with the rest of the traditional ingredients, I quite enjoyed them. They enhance the presentation and prevent the ice from breaking all your teeth.

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8/10

This mango cheesecake bingsu from Sulbing reminds me of something you get at a carnival or a fair: colorful, syrupy and overly sweet. It features mango pieces covered in yuzu syrup, cheesecake bites, and ice cream with some almonds thrown in to make it look a little less like a heart attack. The almonds don’t suit the mango flavor in my opinion, but they were a brief reprieve from all the sugar. The milk ice is typical Sulbing quality, which never disappoints; this bingsu mixes rather well, since the mango pieces aren’t gigantic. Halfway through the bingsu there is yet another layer of syrup (as if we needed more…) so it never gets boring. This bingsu screams FUN and if you gave this to a kid they’d be bouncing all over the walls also screaming FUN. This is like the dessert of the dessert bingsu. Though I wasn’t that excited about it at the time, I’m giving it an 8 because it would’ve hit the spot if I wanted something extremely sweet.

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8.5/10
This is 한라봉 (hallabong) bingsu from Cafe 오가.다 in 북촌. Hallabong is a really sweet orange/tangerine type of thing famously grown on Jeju Island. They’re supposed to be hella good. I’m not a big fan of citrus fruit, so I had my doubts but this is HELLA GOOD. Upon first bite, that hallabong flavor punched me in the gut and took all my money. It packs a WALLOP. Do you hear me?! The flavor is pretty consistent throughout the whole bingsu, which (almost) makes up for the fact that it’s made with just plain ice. As you can see from the picture, the ice is a little chunky and kind of crunchy, but surprisingly, I think the clear ice works quite well with such a strong citrus flavor. I might actually prefer the clear ice to the milk ice on this one. (At this particular place, you could choose what kind of ice you wanted.) This bingsu continued to surprise me: after you get through that mountain of ice, there’s some very mild coconut milk to refresh you after that hallabong flavor assault.

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8.5/10

This is the infamous 인절미 (injeolmi) bingsu from 설빙. 인절미 is a type of Korean rice cake (not like Quakers…think mochi) covered with roasted soybean flour. It’s a very “traditional Korean flavor” and seems to be polarizing even among Koreans. It’s a best seller at Sulbing, but when I asked my host sister if we could try it, she adamantly said, “No! Not injeolmi!” Maybe she has some secret beef with injeolmi, I don’t know. Anyway, in Japanese, this is 黄粉 (きなこ). The whole bingsu is covered in a mountain of soybean flour so WARNING: you must mix this or you will choke and DIE. Okay, not really, but if you don’t mix it you’ll literally be eating spoonfuls of powder for the first few minutes. Even when I mixed it, it was still clumpy and stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. The rice cake was very good and there were a few slivers of almonds that added a little crunch. This one is a struggle to eat, but if you really like the nutty きなこ flavor, and want something a little earthy and not too sweet, this one is for you. I didn’t find this one particularly refreshing because it had too much powder, but I had it at a different Sulbing where the balance of powder and ice was just right, so I definitely see the appeal. I’m starting to crave this one now (sorry, host sister).

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9/10

This 녹차 (green tea) bingsu is from the O’sulloc Tea store in Myeongdong. I would advise you to only get this one if you LOVE green tea. Not green tea flavored stuff like green tea latte or matcha kit-kats. I mean 濃い抹茶. This bingsu has a very deep and bitter flavor; the sweetness comes from the 떡 and the secret layer of red bean in the middle. I thought I loved green tea, but this caught me off guard. I was so happy when those red beans showed up! I was going to give it a lower score because it was almost too bitter to enjoy, but I think that’s the charm. It’s getting a high score for being the most legit 녹차빙수 I’ve ever had.

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9.5/10

Caramel Coffee Bingsu from 설빙.  It’s a heartier bingsu featuring almonds, cashews, granola, roasted coffee beans and caramel ice cream on top. It would be really hard to eat after a big meal. This bingsu mixes very well and the balance of caramel and coffee is such that it’s hard to separate the two flavors. It’s like a caramel macchiato + bingsu. A little salty to balance out the sweet, your tastebuds will appreciate the harmony of this one. I didn’t even need the condensed milk. I would’ve given it a 10/10 BUT it has a huge glob of red beans in the middle, which threw off the balance of flavors for me. The red beans made it too busy. Of course, if you love red beans no matter what, it’s a 10/10 for you.

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10/10

Are your friends too busy getting haircuts (or doing something equally lame) to get bingsu with you? Fear not. 호밀밭 is here for you with their stellar fruit bingsu. Technically, I already reviewed this bingsu back in June. I previously gave a 9/10, but I had it again by itself, so it had my full attention this time around. Once again, this is the finest shaved milk ice I’ve had in Seoul; the fruit is sweet, abundant and super fresh (except the strawberries, which are frozen and kind of jank), but it doesn’t overpower the milk flavor of the ice, which is very very nice. The red beans and 떡 were also on point, as I’ve mentioned before. None of that mushy canned stuff. I didn’t really add the red beans because the fruit already keeps this bingsu bumpin’, but you certainly wouldn’t regret adding them in. Another thing I really like about this one is the size. It’s small enough for you to eat by yourself without feeling judged, but you could also share it with a friend. That’s rare in Korea, where it seems like you must be in a pair to do or eat anything.

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10/10

One of my favorite ones to date. It’s a Taiwanese-style pineapple bingsu from Meet Fresh near Gangnam Station. First of all, they put the whole bingsu in a frickin’ pineapple! Do I need to say more?! The ice is perfectly soft and almost slushy-like, as if they froze the fruit juice. Fresh scoops of pineapple, maraschino cherries, fantastic chewy jelly things, cranberries and (coconut?) milk come together to create the most blissful, refreshing bingsu experience I’ve had in a loooong time. This transported me straight to Hawaii (not that I’ve ever been to Hawaii….) Oh wait. I guess I should say Taiwan (not that I’ve been there either….) EITHER WAY I was walking on sunshine. Pineapple-yellow sunshine. This bingsu was so light and pleasing I thought I could eat two, and I would have! But I didn’t want to pay for another one. Or the Meet Fresh employees to judge me.

30 Things I Love Right Now [July]

(1) Bingsoooooo  (2) Injeolmi bingsu  (3) condensed milk  (4) appeasing my sweet tooth in two languages: 연유. 練乳.  (5) Lim Kim’s album Simple Mind   (6) Never thought I’d say this but: nutella  (7) with saltine crackers  (8) self-control—never straight from the jar  (9) 매실차. Plum Tea.  (10) poetry  (11) Hymn for the Black Terrific  (12) an email from my favorite poet  (13) KP  (14) Reading KP  (15) with a Sade jazz mix playing in the background  (16) free skin  (17) losing the desire for makeup  (18) which necessitates Korean skin products  (19) specifically Black Sugar Serum and masks  (20) Japanese vending machines  (21) my superior sense of direction  (22) but also asking for directions  (23) Kyoto’s Buddhist temples  (24) 永観堂. Eikando  (25) 三十三間堂. Sanjusangendo  (26) incense  (27) 7-11  (28) fancy toilets  (29) coming back to Korea  (30) having a family to come back to in Korea

The Case of the Missing Homesickness

Around this time last year I was humming an impromptu victory song to celebrate the end of CET Osaka in Japan as my classmates and their Japanese language partners fought to keep tears out of their goodbye speeches. My speech was short and sweet, my smile bright. People looked on and said, “That Carmen, always happy, even times like this!” Yes, I was happy. To get the heck out of there and onto the first plane bound for the States. Plagued by terrible homesickness since week three of my Japanese program, I scoured Osaka for tastes of home: a decent cheeseburger, southern-style fried chicken, sweet potatoes, a decent hug, the smell of cinnamon. At that time I sorely regretted not bringing pictures of family and friends with me. I wildly searched for, and held on steadfastly to anything that connected reminded me of home, as if it could transport me there.

This year, thinking about my departure from Korea brings on a twinge of panic. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Korea for two months now, and even harder to believe I don’t miss home as I thought I would. Though my friends send “I miss you; hurry back” and “what am I going to do without you?!” messages, my replies aren’t filled with the desperation they were last year. I don’t really miss home. I’m not saying my stay in Korea has been an absolute dream, but the road has been rather smooth, unmarked by emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours. The car engine hasn’t sputtered on a lonely sob and given up the ghost. I feel I have a home right here. Seoul is a highly developed (and kind of Westernized) city where it’s easy to find some home comforts:

Bread and coffee. There’s a wonderfully air conditioned coffee shop every five to ten steps you take in Seoul, each with its own unique atmosphere. I’m not addicted to coffee, but if you expect me to get up everyday at 6am and be functional enough to speak and think in Korean for 5 hours straight without a little boost, you’re not playing with a full set of Bocce balls. (Kudos if you get that reference.) Usually, coffee just as overpriced as it is in America, you can be a mildly outraged by the price of a latte here too! The iced vanilla lattes from my host sister’s favorite cafe taste just like the ones from a Belgian cafe on my college campus my roommate and I frequented. Additionally, there are “French-style” bakeries everywhere in Korea, meaning easy access to morning pastries, which is really all I ask for. The bread keeps me from being defeated by the great rice barrage.

Soul food. Korean food reminds me of Southern cuisine: neck bones, ox-tails, chicken feet, ribs, fried chicken, delicious morsels covered in savory sauces. Here, they also eat things that stink up the house for days at a time. With enough flavor to sucker punch you and enough spice to make your nose run. The food is so good, you must eat seriously, head down, working your chops. You must stop to wipe your face. Afterwards you must pick your teeth and nap. Or have a slice of watermelon if it’s summer (sound familiar?)

Community. Koreans are very group-oriented. There are strong bonds between family members, circles of friends and co-workers; members of these sub-groups make it a goal to look out for one another, making sure everyone else looks their best and functions at their best. Having been accepted my host family, they baby me sometimes, asking what/when I ate, where I’m going and for how long, even giving me unsolicited relationship and medical advice. (Sometimes a little too honestly: “Where did your S-line go? Maybe you should exercise more!”) Mostly, they want to make sure that I’m happy, comfortable and healthy. It’s lovely to have this kind of support system in Korea where it can be really difficult to make friends. There are people who genuinely care about me here, so I don’t have to cling so much to people at home, who couldn’t fix my problems for me if I had any, anyway.

People-watching. I spend a lot of time watching people to learn about how to do things in Korea properly but mostly I do it because it’s fun. You don’t need to speak a word of Korean to recognize the love-sick expression on a guy’s face when he’s texting his girlfriend, or to understand that a woman is upset with her boyfriend, or the brief look of panic when the first raindrop falls and someone realizes they’ve forgotten their umbrella. Also, the side-eye game in this country is strong. It’s like I’ve found my people!

When I had to wait way too long in the line at the bank, I caught the eye of another woman who had been waiting longer then I have, and by the grip she had on her sweater, I could tell she was growing dangerously impatient. Our gazes met across the room, and we both shook our heads at the same time. I had to laugh. My life here is filled with moments like that, and is helping me to realize that despite language barriers and culture differences, we all are just the same, aren’t we?

All Aboard the Korean Chopstick Struggle Bus

I’ve always believed a tourist should look up dining etiquette for the country they’re visiting so as to not offend and disturb the locals (more than they already are). As you read in my previous post, The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan, I didn’t practice what I preach this time. Maybe I was lazy: I’ve been to Japan, so I know the basics of chopstick etiquette and therefore (I thought I knew) general etiquette when eating in Asia. Not quite the case. Korea has very different dining etiquette. I learned about this in detail when we covered a chapter in class about Korean table manners. But what we learned in class didn’t always match up to what was done in at home with my host family. Like slurping. Supposedly, you’re not supposed to slurp, but nearly everyone I’ve eaten noodles with in Korea slurps. Loudly. So what rules must be kept and which ones can be fudged?

The first thing Westerners will probably notice (and cringe at) is the fact that Koreans eat from the same dishes in the middle of the table. For a germaphobe like me, this was an absolute nightmare. I don’t want someone’s mouth germs swimming in my kimchi jjigae. Ew.  When I first came here, I rushed to put food on a little side plate for myself, but I stopped that after a while. Eating from the same dishes is just something you’ll have to get used to; you’ll feel more like part of the group if you do. I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I guess it’s okay.

Use the spoon for soup/stew and rice; use chopsticks for everything else (banchan, meat, etc). I’ve seen people eat rice with chopsticks, so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule, especially when eating at home. I think it depends on what you’re eating. If you don’t have soup at the table, you probably won’t need the spoon, so instead of constantly switching between the spoon and chopsticks, it’s easier to just eat the rice with chopsticks. Don’t use a used spoon for side dishes, by the way. And don’t put rice on the spoon first and then put that in the soup. Do it the other way around.

Since age is crazy important in Korea, you show respect for the oldest person at the table by letting them eat first. Don’t start eating until they do, and try to keep pace so that you don’t finish eating before them; getting up from the table before your elders is rude. This rule applies when you’re eating out with a group, like at 회식. At my house, at least, my host cousin (who’s 19) will start eating before my host parents and leaves when she feels like it. I can’t say for sure when/where you must follow this rule, it’s probably better to take cues from the people you’re eating with.

The rice bowl goes on the left and the soup bowl goes on the right. This is one rule I thought only applied in a formal setting or at a restaurant, but it also applies at home. Once I was eating with my soup on the left and rice on the right, and my host mother reached all the way across the table to switch them for me; I didn’t think it mattered, but it does. Everyone else had their dishes placed the same way. When I talked to my host family about it, it seems that placing the dishes this was is just more natural, so you can get the soup in your spoon first and then the rice. I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you’re left-handed…?

Reaching over people’s plates to reach the food is okay in Korea. (This kills me on the inside). On several websites, it says you’re supposed to ask people to pass you things, but I’ve never seen Korean people do it. They just reach right over. Sometimes my host mother will rearrange the dishes on the table so it’s easier for me to get a specific banchan, but this is because she thinks I’m bad at using chopsticks. And let’s be honest, I was bad at using chopsticks. Korean ones, that is.

If you’ve seen Korean dramas (or are Korean), you probably already know that Koreans eat with long metal chopsticks and spoons. These chopsticks are different from the ones I’m used to using in America or Japan, which are shorter, thicker and wooden or plastic. Since Korean chopsticks are made of metal, they’re slippery and heavier, which completely throws off my chopstick game. My host family constantly reminded me, “Oh, right, you’re a foreigner. You don’t know how to use chopsticks,” and gave me a fork, but in my head I screamed, “NO. I can use chopsticks. Yours are just weird!” Luckily, I have the hang of it now, so they’re not trying to give me a fork at every meal, but I can’t help wondering why, of all the countries that use chopsticks, Korea is the only place where people use metal ones.

So I asked around. The most popular answers were:

  • Metal chopsticks are more sanitary, as they can easily be washed and reused again, unlike wooden ones where food particles and germs can sink into the grain.
  • There’s a lot of grilling involved in Korean cuisine, and you eat straight off the grill in most cases, so of course you want to use a material like metal that won’t catch fire.
  • Online I read that way back when, royalty used pure silver chopsticks because the silver would change colors if the food had been poisoned. Eventually commoners wanting to imitate royalty began using metal chopsticks.
  • Using these kinds of chopsticks make you smarter and more dexterous?? According to this article on Slate.com titled The Seoul of Clones:

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon’s dexterity. That’s why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise “micromanipulation” of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can’t hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

When it comes to the length of the chopsticks, I have my own theories. Since people share dishes, it’s only natural that the chopsticks are longer so people can reach food in the middle of the table. It’s also a huge faux pas to hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand as you eat, both in a public and private setting. I found this interesting because it’s perfectly fine in both China and Japan. Moreover, it seems to be bad manners to bring your face too close to any food dish. When I asked my host mother about why this is not okay in Korea, she said “Eating like that is fine in Japan, isn’t it? But that’s the way dogs eat.” Woah now. Did she just insinuate that Japanese people eat like dogs? I can’t say whether she meant it that way or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, considering the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. But I’m not touching that topic with a 39 1/2 foot pole. Er, chopstick.

They Call Me ‘괜찮아 보아’

As previously mentioned in the post where I introduced my host family, my host sister is the only one in the house who speaks any English, so the first few weeks I stuck to her like glue. She was my buffer, taking in their indecipherable Korean questions and fielding them to me in a mix of dumbed down Korean and very simple English. We had almost every meal together because I couldn’t understand a word her parents said. I spent most of dinner letting their conversations wash over me as I concentrated hard to use those metal chopsticks; occasionally my host sister told me the gist of the conversation, and with all the lively facial expressions around the table, it was impossible to feel excluded.

The first time I had to eat dinner with the family without her, it was like having the training wheels yanked off your bike way before you were ready. While you were on the crest of a hill, for instance. In the rain. Without knee-pads. I’d resolved to sit and eat in silence, but my host mother asked me about my day: what I ate, what I’d learned in class that day. Before I knew it, I was talking to her about how comfortable life was for me in Korea, how I actually quite enjoyed taking the bus, my experiences with Korean food, and who I missed most from home and why. Though I couldn’t catch everything, I was able to come up with an appropriate reaction to whatever she said. She surprised me by saying, “You listen and understand much better now than you did before.” And that’s when it dawned on me: Holy crap, she’s right. Weeks ago I probably couldn’t even have understood THAT. (Did I mention I didn’t have to focus on using my chopsticks? Another development she happily commented on.)

Gradually, my host family began to ask more questions about my preferences and how to accommodate me such as: “Do you want more rice? Water?” “Which banchan do you like best?” “Sorry we can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. You want to eat some, right?” To all of the questions my answer is 괜찮아요 (I’m good/okay/dandy) and to the banchan question 다 맛있어요.This mellow attitude of mine caught them by surprise and has earned me the nickname 괜찮아 보아. ‘No matter what, everything is 괜찮아 with 보아!’ as my host sister puts it.

Part of me wanders what they expected me to say. Perhaps something like, “I’m American! I need hamburgers! I need meat! Take this gochujang away and bring me KETCHUP. Vegetables? HA. Beneath me!’  The other part of me is just as surprised as they are. I’ve eaten squid, octopus, unidentified fermented vegetables, even watermelon (!!!!) without batting an eye. Usually I would have pasted a fake smile on my face and suffered through watermelon quietly, or chewed the octopus tentacle until I could spit it out discreetly, but I’m genuinely okay with some things now. I’m learning to let things be okay.  (This still does not apply to hot and humid weather….I’m not THAT chill yet.)

This new-found ability to kind of parse Korean (un)fortunately means my family actually expects me to respond to what they say instead of just answering questions.There have been some things I’ve understood that I wish I hadn’t. Some things that aren’t quite 괜찮아. One day on the subway my host sister kept motioning to two foreign girls on the train; one girl had her hand on the other girl’s shoulder and they were talking in low tones. I thought she was asking me what they were saying because they might’ve been speaking English, but I couldn’t really hear them and I didn’t really care, so I just shrugged. Later at the dinner table, she retold the whole event to her aunt, who then shared her own story about two guys were were wearing couple clothing on the train and sharing earbuds. The moment I connected the dots– why my host aunt’s story was relevant to what my sister said and what my sister meant in the first place– my host aunt turned to me and said in English, “Ugh, that’s disgusting! Isn’t it 보아?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I hoped that I’d misunderstood somewhere, somehow. In that split second when I was deciding how to respond, a myriad of feelings flashed across my heart, and I can only pray none of them showed on my face: shock, disbelief, anger, confusion. I almost wanted to kick myself for being surprised. I knew that homophobia (or denial of homosexuality altogether) was a very present force in Korea, but lulled into comfort by my food coma blanket, I didn’t think my wonderful loving host family would be included in that number. More than anything, I was heartbroken. The same woman who said to me in English, “We are all same under God. You. Me. Everybody.” was the same woman who fixed her face in such a gruesome manner to say “Ew, disgusting.” like she wanted to spit. Those pictures didn’t match up.

I guess I took too long to respond, and they simply moved on to another topic. The brief anger I felt dissipated as the moment passed and was replaced with a strange, warm calm: Compassion, maybe. Pity, perhaps. Love? I hope one day they can find it in their hearts not to be so hateful, and what better way to inspire that change than by showing them love and compassion? Sometimes I think back to what I could’ve said, but I can’t properly articulate my feelings on the matter in Korean. Even if I could, my opinion wouldn’t change their stance and I would’ve just alienated myself for nothing. There would’ve been an awkward rift between us for the rest of my time here. Though I felt a little prickly at the time for staying silent, in this case I’m glad I didn’t say anything; words spoken in anger have never really solved anything after all, right?