Plate Lab: A guide to Asian shaved ice desserts halo-halo, bao-bing and bingsoo

July 25
Korean bingsoo combines generous helpings of fresh fruit, red beans and ice, among other things. See how the dish gets constructed from start to finish at Shilla Bakery in Northern Virginia. (Jonathan Elker/The Washington Post)

There is nothing more cooling in the heat of summer than scooping into an ice-based dessert. Unlike the American snow cone, which relies mostly on colorful syrups, Asian concoctions sometimes forgo syrup entirely and feature fresh fruit, sweet milk, red beans or glutinous rice cakes (mochi), depending on the country of origin. In fact, you have to look carefully to spy the finely pulverized ice that has been at the heart of such seasonal treats since the 7th century.

The Filipino version of shaved ice is called halo-halo, meaning “mix-mix” in Tagalog. It usually includes sweetened kidney and garbanzo beans, palm fruit preserves, nata de coco or coconut juice chews, and purple yam or mango ice cream. The assortment can be mixed together, as the name implies, or layered. “When the hot weather comes, I like to sit down and catch up with friends over a cup of halo-halo,” said Emma Bioc, co-owner of Manila Mart in Beltsville, Md. (Pampanguena Cafe in Derwood and Filipino Market & Cafe in Rockville also serve it.) “It’s just like having a refreshing beer with friends.”

Chinese and Taiwanese shaved ice, known as bao-bing or tsua-bing, arrives in a deep saucer and is meant to be shared. The ice, piled high into a conical shape and topped with condensed milk, is ringed with gelatin squares, taro and red azuki beans. “Shaved ice in Taiwan is very famous,” says Ting Chuang, owner of Taipei Cafe in Rockville. “You can find it at the night markets next to the stinky tofu and oily pancakes.” Locally, you can find it at Bob’s Shanghai and Jumbo Jumbo in Rockville, in addition to Taipei Cafe.


(Greg Powers/For The Washington Post)

At Annandale, Va.’s, Breeze Bakery Cafe, the Korean bingsoo (pictured) includes a generous helping of fresh fruit atop the red beans and ice, with a creamy tower of frozen yogurt or gelato; optional add-ons include corn flakes and mochi squares. “Ice cools the body,” says manager Inhoo Paik, “but eating ice alone is bland and tasteless.” Bingsoo is also available at Shilla Bakery locations in Maryland and Virginia.

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