Ice cream explorations and a peek into the past
By Ines Min
The weather has found its stride in the mid-20 degrees Celsius range, which can only mean one thing: Summer is finally here. And, with the knowledge that sweltering months are still ahead, it is only natural that thoughts turn toward that sweet savior from the heat. That is, ice cream.
A history of delights
There are a plethora of ice cream varieties today in every region, with the earliest forms dating back to 200 B.C. The first references to ice cream are attributed to Roman emperor Nero and the Chinese King Tang, who combined milk and ice. The concept soon spread across the world with the help of such legends as Alexander the Great and Marco Polo.
The history of modern ice cream in Korea is relatively short, though it also evolved from simple ice concoctions to become milk and egg extravaganzas. Affected by the Korean War (1950-1953) and the influence of the West, the history of ice cream in Korea began under the most logistics-based circumstances.
Modern refrigeration was still a rarity here until as late as the 1960s. Instead, blocks of ice from the frozen Han River would be stored in piles of sawdust until the hot summer months arrived. Ice was even once managed by official government offices.
During the late 1950s and '60s, shaved ice topped with colored dyes became a popular treat _ not unlike the Western snow cone, though eaten with a spoon. Using tubs filled with salt water to keep the ice from melting, street cart vendors would shave the blocks by hand and sell their goods to neighborhood children directly from the stand.
One of the treats was the "egg ice cake," one of the best frozen options as it was predominately hard ice and held up relatively well under the scorching sun. Named for its egg-shape, the early popsicle was notorious for its artificial pigment. Neighborhood children could be seen sucking on the slowly melting ovoid, gradually turning their mouths blue, yellow and red.
As the country grew with its fast-paced rate of development, so did the frozen desserts. Ice cakes were soon modified into the recognizable cylindrical shape and fruit flavors turned the treat into an early sorbet. The new variety was often sold by youngsters, hawking the popsicles as fast as they could with a box slinging from their shoulders, desperate to get rid of the batch before they all melted.
"When we were little, there weren't really any snacks," said 65-year-old Chang Jong-soon. "So in the summer, ice cakes were a very luxurious thing. You were the coolest if you were seen eating one."
Gradually the wealth in Korea continued to grow, however, and soon ice cream graduated from street vendors to more industrialized factories. As the ice cakes were no longer being sold by teens to earn an extra buck, the quality and sanitary conditions became regulated. Bars chock full of red bean and fresh fruit became popular, as the days of artificial coloring were slowly left behind.
Bakeries such as Goryodang and Taegukdang began selling ice cream treats, including the latter's famous "monaka" that is comprised of a rectangular wafer segmented into cubes and filled with vanilla ice cream. The 60-year-old factory continues to make the exact same product today. (Located outside exit 2 of Dongguk University Station on subway line 3.)
Then, 1967 saw the establishment of Lotte Confectioneries and Binggrae Co. Ltd., producers of some of Korea's most popular ice creams, and eventually led to the polishing of mass manufacturing of the dessert. In the beginning, flavors leaned toward traditional tastes, such as the red bean-flavored B-B-Big. First produced in 1970, the now-classic remains a favorite among older generations, to whom the flavor is a recognizable comfort.
Other, more Western flavors inevitably expanded the market. Today, some of the oldest and still popular names include the Nougat Bar (1974), Screw Bar (1985) and Melona (1992).
Though the most recent generation has taken the ever-changing landscape of desserts without missing a beat, the evolution has been surprising for those who have lived through the culture's transformations.
"When were were kids, we weren't able to eat such fancy things as red bean," said Kim Hwa-young, 59, referring to the once-high cost of the sweet treat that is now ubiquitous and inexpensive.
"When you think of it, ice cream these days is more delicious because it has all these high-quality ingredients in it," she said, but there is still a place in her heart for the dyed forms of the old egg ice cakes. "When you're little it's just so refreshing to eat it and, when you look back, all you can remember are the good memories."
With the more discerning palettes of society moving away from the nostalgic tastes of sweet rice cakes and red bean, companies are ever keen to keep the public craving the world of frozen desserts.
In the bustling Myeongdong shopping district, 32-centimeter-high soft serve cones can be had, while waffles topped with green tea ice cream and other flavors dominate the coffee shop scene, ranging from independent holes-in-the-wall to the franchised Caffe Bene. Gelato takes the scene at others like Caffe Ti-amo and affogato (a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured on top) is a top choice for high-end shops.
But to find the unique Korean flavors, one only needs to visit a mom-and-pop corner store for a less-dressed popsicle or a bakery for a traditional ice cake. The Napoleon bakery (locations in Seongbuk-dong and Gangnam) offers the nostalgic ice cakes in fruit flavors as well as the contemporary chocolate and coffee varieties.
In terms of quick convenience store buys, here are a couple of the strange and exciting ice cream treats that stand out from the rest.
Corn Ice (Lotte Confectioneries): A wafer cleverly shaped to look like a cob in its husk, hides a slab of vanilla ice cream, a thin layer of chocolate and a sweetened corn mix. Bites of actual corn and rice cake result in an ice cream that really, truly, tastes like corn.
Chrysanthemum Bread (Lotte Samkang): This ice cream is filled with more typically Korean flavors. A vanilla ice cream slab serves as a base for a thin layer of rice cake, which is garnished with a coin of red bean paste. The entire medley is covered in a chrysanthemum-shaped wafer.