You might call it Korea’s splurge of the summer. Writer Se-Woong Koo, in his excellent English-language blog Korea Exposé, calls it an “over-the-top affair” and “the-most-talked-about delicacy of the season.” Others I know just call it excessive and ridiculous.
What we’re talking about is a Korean dessert called bingsu, a traditional treat that Koreans long have enjoyed on hot summer days. Bingsu is basically shaved ice with a sweet topping. The old-fashioned version is simply sweet red beans over ice, and over the years, that’s evolved to include fruits, ice cream, and other toppings. But the “over-the-top” versions we’re talking about here have gone way off the charts. We are talking gold flakes, caviar, and muscat, with prices to match.
The Four Seasons serves frozen milk shavings topped with mango slices and a sphere of mint mango sauce encased in edible gold leaf for 94,000 Korean won, or more than $70. The Lotte Hotel dropped last year’s caviar, but this year did an apple mango bingsu presented on a bed of mystical dried ice (KRW 88,000/about $67). And not far behind is the very popular Shilla Hotel’s version at KRW 83,000 (about $63).
It’s not the prices themselves that are shocking. Yes, they’re outrageous, but Korea always has had extreme luxury items for the wealthy. What’s surprising here is that it’s the masses, not the wealthy, flocking to these places. Social media has been full of tips on how to score a table at the Shilla (get there an hour before service starts.) Queues have been long.
There are a lot of different directions you could take this story. Part of the phenomenon, no doubt, is generational, as young Koreans in their 20s and 30s opt to spend more on Instagram-able experiences (Koreans call them Generation MZ, a mashup of Millennials and Gen Z). Part of the story is about the emotional narrative that surrounds all luxury goods and fills some human need in us.
But there also is something mildly disturbing about all this. Korea has one of the highest household debt levels in the world. At 104% of GDP, it’s well above Japan’s 65% and the U.S.’s 80%. For the average Korean, it takes 18 years of saving one’s entire salary to buy a home in Seoul. The newspapers are full of young people who say their only hope of accumulating a down payment is winning big in crypto, stocks, or the lottery – and Koreans love crypto, even now. Remember, this is the country that gave us Emmy-winning Squid Game and Oscar-winning Parasite (both about economic desperation). So why spend $70 on shaved ice?
A Korean friend of mine who lives in Seoul offered this to me last night on Zoom: “I don’t know. I think young people have just given up hope on having anything, so they might as well enjoy what they can now.” She then proceeded to show me pictures of almost grotesquely elaborate macarons being sold in Seoul. And yes, they were very expensive.