STEPPING out of my car, I’m taken aback by the wave of humidity that hits me squarely in the face. But it’s hardly unexpected. It’s only early May but the weather has been rather fickle, swaying from wet to heat, like an indecisive child. “A bowl of icy goodness would be just the thing for days like this,” I mutter to myself as I make a dash for the nearest shade.
Scanning my surroundings of the student-populated area of Subang Jaya, I try to locate a little cafe called OW:L Espresso that my friends had recommended the night before during our chat about where to find great iced desserts. “It’s located in a serviced apartment in SS15,” their words ring in my ear.
This cosy cafe, they told me, specialises in an icy milky bowl of bingsu topped with an abundance of fresh fruit or crunchy bits of cake of one’s choice.
Bingsu, in a more local incarnation, would be our ABC (ais batu campur) — but a Korean cousin of it. The difference is that instead of having shaved ice at the base of the dessert, it has a snowy mountain of frozen milk.
The traditional version of the bingsu usually contains pat (red bean paste) and pieces of injeolmi (sweet rice cakes) dusted with a layer of soybean powder.
It’s a refreshing yet rich dessert befitting the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), where it’s said to have originated.
It’s also believed that government officials in charge of the royal ice box would share ice with fellow officials.
They would usually enjoy it crushed and mixed with fruits for a refreshing bowl to alleviate the summer heat. Hence, it was regarded as a “luxury” dessert shared only among the privileged and those in the upper echelons.
However, today’s version of this Korean dessert is available at any cafe in Seoul and most major cities around the world. It usually features fresh fruit such as rock melon, watermelon and berries, while more adventurous cafe owners experiment with crunchy brownie bits or even tiny squares of cheesecakes.
The signature fluffy and milky shaved ice comes with a price. The special machine used to churn it out can cost a staggering RM30,000 and looks like it belongs in a dialysis centre instead of the kitchen.
The engineering behind it, incidentally, works just like a dialysis machine too. Milk is passed through a series of wheels at lowered temperatures to slowly freeze it and subsequently it’s shaved out as fluffy white snow.
LOCATED on the first floor of Menara Rajawali is OW:L Espresso cafe, with its dominant colour canvas of black, brown furniture and retro-styled black and white flooring exudes a hipster charm. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular hangout spot for the students of Taylor’s and Inti who are housed in the next building.
The owner is 50-year-old Lee Seok Min, a South Korean who admits that it’s these young patrons that inspire him to experiment with crazy creations. Chuckling, he shares that it makes him happy whenever they accept his out-of-this-world designs without flinching.
“I believe if I can succeed in convincing the young of this area of my crazy ideas, I’ll be able to survive in my business. I know that youngsters can be very picky with what they like. And if I can’t capture their attention, it would be very challenging for me to continue,” confides Lee.
The cafe has been open for three years and it stands out from the other eateries in the surrounding area for its delicious and wacky bingsu designs. A crowd favourite I discover is known as Panda, an affogato bingsu wrapped in a ball of cotton candy and yes, shaped like a panda.
Eyes dancing, Lee shares: “One day, I happened to ask myself, what crazy thing can I create? So I added cotton candy around the bowl. Then I added cookie bits to form the eyes and ears. Suddenly, a student came in, saw it and said it was cute. And it has become a fixture ever since. If she said it looked ugly, I would’ve taken it off immediately!”
The affable cafe owner hails from a family who sells furniture in the classy neighbourhood of Gangnam, Seoul. Five years ago, he arrived in Malaysia to expand the family business but ended up discovering that the pace was far too slow for one that craved a little colour in life. He chalks it up to the many artists and furniture designers he has met from around the world who are no way conservative in their ideas. Having a little of their creativity rubbing off on him, he was eager to unleash it.
The bingsu, explains Lee, is a refreshing dessert that’s a meal on its own. “People always think that desserts end a meal. But I believe that desserts can be a complete dish by itself,” he says, before adding: “You won’t get tired of eating bingsu every day, especially if you share it with someone you love. Bingsu will always pick you up when you’re down.”
This amiable restaurateur who jokes that he’s married to bingsu ends our chat by sharing that all the ingredients used are freshly sourced locally every morning to ensure the best in quality. “I’ve tried to bring in a Korean cow but I was unsuccessful,” he says, eyes twinkling in jest.
A-02-1 (1st Floor), Menara Rajawali, Jalan SS15/8, Subang Jaya, Selangor.
Keeping to Traditions
AT the other end of Subang Jaya is a refurbished SS15 Courtyard that houses many new eateries. Among them is one Hanbing Korean Dessert Cafe, which stands out from the rest of the local fares offered here. The cafe’s 33-year-old owner, and co-partner, Huen Su San, a self-confessed foodie, shares that her first try of bingsu wasn’t in Korea. She found her love for the cold dessert at an outlet in Hong Kong.
“I got attracted to a very lively and vibrant Korean cafe in Harbour city. I remember the queue being very long but I had no idea what they were serving. I recall telling my friend that we could have a similar scenario especially if we could have our own shop. That’s when I met business partner Shin who owns the cafe in Hong Kong and many more in Korea,” shares Huen.
In less than two years, this Korean dessert cafe grew from its initial outlet in Jalan Telawi, Bangsar to two more outlets in Subang Jaya and IOI City Mall. “The Hallyu wave has helped in popularising the Korean food trend,” concedes Huen, adding that the fact that most Malaysians are very receptive to new things has helped considerably in ensuring her smooth passage into the arena here.
She confides that her initial target was actually students and youngsters but over time has seen the cafe being patronised by families as well as older people. The most satisfying part of the business, she says, smiling, is receiving little notes of thanks. “It seems that, there are a couple of Koreans who patronise the cafe too. One day, I received a note of thanks for the good food and authentic taste.”
Hanbing is a household name in Korea and the signature dish is the traditional pat bingsu (red bean shaved milk ice) with injoelmi and a generous dusting of soyabean powder. It’s a favourite among Koreans in KL seeking a familiar taste from home.
The authentic Korean flavour also extends to their other bites like japchae (stir-fried sweet potato flour noodles) and fried chicken. To ensure the authenticity of the food, Huen has two Korean chefs at hand.
In addition to these authentic flavours, there are others on the menu that will certainly attract those who are younger at heart, such as the Blueberry Cheesecake bingsu and the Oreo bingsu. For those seeking a more “local” taste, Hanbing has a seasonal menu which is currently being used as a trial platform, such as their current promotion of a daring and pungent bowl of Musang King Durian bingsu.
Adds Huen, as we reach the end of our chat: “The texture of the bingsu is the most important thing about the dessert.
It has to be soft and fluffy. Then, when you pair it with fresh ingredients, you’ll get the very best of flavours.”
Hanbing Korean Dessert Cafe
G-09, SS15 Courtyard, Jalan SS15/4G, 47500 Subang Jaya, Selangor