My Dive Into the Dizzying, Delightful World of Korean Frozen Desserts
After years away from it, I ventured back into H Mart's Korean ice cream bar aisle with a mission to taste it all.
Though I consider myself an ice cream enthusiast, my recent experience strolling down the frozen aisle at H Mart made me feel a tad out of my element. I took in the shelves of Korean ice cream packaged in colorful, whimsical wrappers and tried to decipher the myriad of flavors: chocolate ice cream layered between spongy chiffon cake, fruity ice bars in a range of hues, fish-shaped wafers filled with ice cream and red bean paste and even a sweet corn-flavored ice cream sandwich (I was especially intrigued by that one).
While classic Korean ice cream bars were welcome — albeit intermittent — additions to our home freezer while I was growing up, I lost touch with them when I discovered Ben & Jerry’s pints in college. My mom loved the creamy, pastel-green Melona bars and my dad preferred red bean-flecked, old-school B-B-BIG, but I’d much rather dig into a brownie-laden, caramel-streaked vanilla pint. Lingering in the frozen aisle of H Mart a few weeks ago, then, felt simultaneously familiar and foreign; while there were some varieties I recognized, there were many more I hadn’t tasted or even seen before.
Unlike American ice cream that you see in pints, quarts and even gallons, Korean ice cream bars — regardless of the flavor or style — are often sold by boxes of individual packages, making it easy to grab a handheld treat from your freezer without committing to something larger. Coupled with bright, bold packaging, the creativity and range of flavors are big selling points — even during the few glorious minutes I perused the Korean ice cream section, I noticed everything from fruit, nuts and chocolate to corn, tea and red bean. In contrast to American grocery stores where I had mentally categorized frozen desserts as either fruity and light or creamy, heavy and decadent, I found that Korean ice cream often transcended these bounds, combining flavors and textures (chewy, soft, crunchy) in intriguing, inventive ways. Somehow the fruity and the creamy worked wonders in a Melona bar, and a chewy mochi layer fit right in with a red bean and ice cream filling, all surrounded by a soft wafer shell (cue Lotte’s Frozen Red Bean Cake with Mochi). There’s a certain diversity and playfulness to Korean ice cream that’s hard to find elsewhere — and you’ll discover that those who are well-versed in it have their clear favorites.
If you’re new to Korean ice cream, Hannah Bae, whose ice cream company Noona’s features Asian flavors in American-style pints, recommends starting with mochi ice cream, more American “standard-looking” ice pops and Samanco Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwiches with Red Bean Paste. “The red bean in [Samanco] is doused in sugar syrup, which softens the red bean,” Bae explains. Something like B-B-BIG, on the other hand, contains red bean pieces embedded in the ice bar itself — a texture that some may find unfamiliar but others, like Bae, welcome. At the end of the day, the best way to delve into the vast world of Korean ice cream is to sample a variety. Many Korean stores stock a treasure trove of individual bars near check-out, making mixing-and-matching a breeze. “Like any food you haven’t tried, just go for it,” Bae says. “What’s the fear? Try everything!”
As a relative newbie myself, I took Bae’s advice to heart and taste-tested more than a dozen Korean ice cream varieties as part of my personal quest. Along with a few ice cream-loving friends, we methodically grouped similar bars together and sampled them one after another, stopping to debrief after each one (which meant that at the end of the night, I had several half-eaten, weirdly shaped bars in my freezer). Although it’s hard to play favorites when there’s such a rich variety out there, here’s what I recommend the next time you find yourself lost in the Korean ice cream aisle:
For Your Fruity Fix: Melona bars are a crowd-pleaser, balancing the fruity with the creamy in flavors like strawberry, mango, coconut and, of course, classic honeydew melon. Another winner is the Lotte Watermelon Bar, which offers an interesting mix of creamy, icy, tart and sweet, and is playfully shaped like a watermelon slice.
For a Light but Indulgent Treat: Creamier than an ice pop but less rich than ice cream, the Lotte Foods Blueberry Greek Yogurt Bar is a solid choice. The outer shell reminds me of the coating enrobing yogurt-covered pretzels, and the bar itself is creamy, slightly tangy and streaked with ribbons of blueberry flavor.
For the Matcha Fanatic: Binggrae Matcha with Red Bean B-B-BIG combines two iconic flavors in one frozen dessert bar, and does it surprisingly well. The matcha flavor shines through, and the red bean pieces add to, rather than distract from, the creamy bar. I preferred the texture of this bar over the original B-B-BIG Red Bean Ice Bar.
For an Interesting Alternative to Samanco: The fish-shaped wafer sandwich filled with vanilla ice cream and red bean paste is a well-loved classic, but take it a step further with Lotte Foods Frozen Red Bean Cake with Mochi. Though it’s similar to Samanco, the wafer shell is more flavorful, and the layer of mochi in the filling adds a welcome textural component.