Korea is having a hot summer. Actually, Korea is having a record-breaking sweltering summer, with temperatures rising up to 35°C and over. The heat and humidity can get suffocating; tempers can flare over the tiniest things as people get crankier and crankier with the rising temperatures.
But there’s also a good side to this incredible heat wave: it gives you the perfect excuse to ice cream. Lots of it.
Although patbingsu (팥빙수, ice flakes topped with sweet red bean paste and other sweets) may be the cold summer snack of choice in Korea, it’s not easy to make at home nor is it cheap. Ice cream specialty stores or imported brands aren’t kind to the wallet, either. On the other hand, prepackaged Korean ice cream bars can be readily found at the neighborhood convenience store or in bulk at great sale prices at large discount stores.
There are, and have been, so many different varieties of frozen desserts sold here in Korea, but there are those who have stood the test of time and have remained bestsellers for several decades. Korea’s confectionery industry is dominated by four companies: Lotte Samkang, Lotte Confectionery, Haitai, and Binggrae. They are responsible for most of the nation’s favorites.
THE TOP 10
“Red Bean Ice Bar” it helpfully says on the packaging. When someone is assigned to rush out of the office for an ice cream errand, that person is surely going to bring one back. This is the ice cream bar that the older generation prefers, as it is based on the flavors of patbingsu, the traditional cold dessert. Released in 1975, its taste has slightly evolved over the years but the chunks of red beans remain the same. It’s the oyster of ice cream bars: you might have not liked the taste when you were a kid but you just love it more and more as you get older.
Literally translated as “Ah, it’s delicious”, .Amatna has actually been around for longer than Bibibig. It was launched in 1972, but with a similar patbingsu flavor profile to Bibibig, it never quite matched the success of its rival, although you cannot say it was unsuccessful, either; lasting for 40 years is itself an incredible feat.
Amatna is more of a popsicle than a true ice cream bar; it has a clear frozen casing with sweet red bean syrup in its center. I’ve found the major difference between people who like Bibibig and those who prefer Amatna is like those who prefer crunchy peanut butter to smooth. One has the crunchy red beans, and the other glides on the tongue.
Nougat Bar (누가바)
Nougat Bar was introduced in 1974. It’s a bar of vanilla ice cream coated with a layer of milk chocolate, made to resemble a round nougat bar. It’s the standard of standards, something to have when you don’t want a particular flavor, when you just want something simple. The ice cream bar is also famous for its earlier marketing campaigns with the word play of its name which sounds like “Who’s looking?” in Korean. The taglines just wrote themselves: “What are you looking at?” “Who’s looking?” It’s like an ice cream commercial version of “Who’s on first?”
Another old timer, Babambar was released in 1976. “Bam” (밤) means “chestnut” in Korean, another popular flavor. Since the “r” at the end is silent, the name sounds like “bah-bahm-bah”, almost like a repetitive chorus of a song. Chestnut bits are flecked in chestnut flavor ice cream, with sweet chestnut syrup hidden in the middle. It’s a triple bah-bahm-bah of chestnut flavor in a single bar.
Ssang Ssang Bar (쌍쌍바)
The word isn’t used that much anymore – not for people, anyways – but “ssang” means “pair” or “couple”. Easy to see what that means in this context, isn’t it? An ice cream bar with two sticks; meant to be shared, especially with a loved one. The heart on the packaging says it all.
Being shared since 1979, the ice cream tastes like a light milk chocolate or cocoa. Of course.
The trick lies in splitting the sides evenly; it’s a mastered skill. Most of the time, one person gets luckier than the other.
Launched in 1983. Don‘t ask me why the product’s official English name is what it is. What’s wrong with “Pig Bar”? Perhaps the pig isn’t seen in a good light as much as it is in Korea. Well, the pig can have both good and bad connotations, but I haven’t seen anyone feeling bad about eating a Pig Bar; hey, you’re eating ice cream, you’re pigging out anyways, why not just acknowledge it and eat the tasty thing?
Because the ice cream bar sure is tasty and if you decide to pig out on ice cream bars, you might as well go for it. Vanilla ice cream coated with crunchy nutty chocolate, with sweet strawberry syrup filling in the center. The only complaint I have is that it’s too small for my taste. I usually have two.
Jaws Bar (죠스바)
Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun. Yes, that “Jaws”. It looks like a shark, the source of summer chills, and when you take a bite of the popsicle, your mouth will look like that of a shark, too. Of course, kids love it. It’s probably their favorite popsicle of all time. Jaws Bar has been making the tongues and lips of kids red and blue since 1983. The popsicle, unlike its casing color, tastes like oranges and the filling tastes like strawberries. Although I really doubt the kids are eating this because of the taste.
Straightforward name, that. Shaped like a long cube of melon, Melona is probably the most popular ice cream bar with a summer fruit flavor. The light green color was somewhat of a sensation when it was first introduced in 1990. The “new” Melona was introduced in 1992. Although not on the local market, there are also banana and strawberry flavors being exported overseas. It’s the usual choice for the “pretty girl”, or so the office joke goes. Or when you’re in the mood for a light fresh flavor but don’t want a slushy popsicle.
Talking about slushy popsicles, the chocolate flavored Papico is one of the oldest tube popsicles still on the market today. Flavored crushed ice or sherbet in tubes have been around longer than ice cream bars, but Papico is the one which has maintained its popularity ever since it was launched in 1981.
The packaging hasn’t changed much over the years as it features the famous prehistoric characters of the cartoonist Park Su-dong (박수동).
The king of all kings, Seolleim is the bestseller of them all. Very recently launched in 2003, the plastic pocket full of crushed ice has been the main heat-killer for several years in a row. It has surpassed all the other slush iced products quite easily, most probably because of its easy-to-handle packaging which prevents those annoying drips and sticky fingers. You can also eat half and stick the rest in s freezer again for future consumption.
Seolleim comes in three flavors: Milk Shake, Coffee Shake, Cookies & Cream.
Wait, you might say. “Where is Screw Bar? Or Bravo Cone? Or Watermelon Bar? Or Ssamanco?” Yes, yes, there are tons of other notables out there, but I can’t list them all. I’ve left out the ice cream cones and the ice cream sandwiches (no matter they cute they are, looking like traditional fish bread), and those with a shorter history or less selling power than the ones mentioned above.
I do want to mention one last ice cream bar, though: Seoju’s “Iceju” (서주 아이스주). One of the rare ice cream bars not manufactured by a big confectionery company, Iceju was officially introduced in the national market in 1981 but was around for a long time before that in the local market. Seoju was mainly a dairy company, so the ice cream basically tasted like sweetened frozen milk. The packaging remains the same as it was, but unfortunately, the company was taken over by another some time back and production of the ice cream became very sporadic. Some people say they have spied it being sold in small supermarkets but I personally haven’t seen it in a while.
Along with Bibibig and the now defunct slush ice tube Jjujjubar (쭈쭈바), this would be the utmost “blast from the past” ice cream bar.
Hope you all don’t collapse from the heat. Have some ice cream and chill out!
* All photos from the official sites unless otherwise noted
Lotte Confectionery – http://www.lotteconf.co.kr
Lotte Samkang – http://www.lottesamkang.co.kr
Haitai – http://www.ht.co.kr
Binggrae – http://www.bing.co.kr