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The key to global cooling

Icy desserts from tropical climes take the edge off summer, deliciously.

June 30, 2004|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

In some parts of the world, the most popular desserts are built on an ingredient that would disappear in a minute if you let it sit, and tastes like nothing when you put it in your mouth.

Riddling aside, ice makes for some glacially great finales, and we don't mean snow cones.

These desserts, many of which come from the steamy climes of Asia, but which also come from Mexico, can be architectural assemblies. Crushed ice, set in a bowl or goblet might be drenched with sweet syrup, coated with condensed milk, topped with fresh fruit and laced with sweet red beans. Ice cream might be added too.

But you don't have to leave L.A. to find these exotic icy desserts. At street stands around the city and at coffee shops and restaurants, these unusually flavored concoctions are menu regulars. I have several favorite spots I hit when I need to cool down and satisfy my hot-weather cravings.

At L.A.'s Farmers Market, you can find Singapore's ice kacang, a bowl of syrup-drenched ice piled over sweetened beans. Bingsu -- made with fruit and sweet red beans -- can be found in Koreatown. Look for halo-halo, an icy conglomeration from the Philippines, at a restaurant in Glendale. Or a long line of customers may lead you to a tiny place in East L.A. for a Mexican ice treat, the raspado, which -- with its fresh fruit toppings -- runs circles around a boring snow cone.

I've loved ice desserts ever since I first traveled to Southeast Asia, where I discovered ice kacang. It was terribly hot the night a Chinese woman and I faced each other over identical bowls of this icy treat at Lau Pa Sat, a food stall center in the heart of the city. We were strangers, but we ate like twins, demolishing our bowls at the same speed and finishing at the same time.

It was vital to work fast, because in sweaty tropical heat, ice kacang rapidly dissolves into a wet soup, when what you crave is arctic, teeth-chattering mouthfuls of ice.

The flavors of all these desserts are different and alluring, well beyond those of America's favorite summer dessert, ice cream, but that's part of the adventure.

Taiwanese ice slush

The slush counter at one end of Shau May, a fast-food-style Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, displays what you might call toppings -- that actually go on the bottom. These include mango pudding, almond gelatin, barley, boiled peanuts, grass jelly, beans, taro, lychees and other fruits.

The attendant spoons three or four selections into a shallow bowl and holds it under a machine that piles on enough ground ice to cause an avalanche. For an extra quarter, you get a swirl of condensed milk.

I chose mango pudding and almond gelatin, which broke up and blended into the melting ice, making an exotic tropical background for the lychees. Herbal grass jelly is almost tasteless, but its dark color added pizazz to this pale dessert.

Ice kacang

At Singapore's Banana Leaf in the Farmers Market, kacang is spelled kachang because that is how it is pronounced. Translucent, chewy palm seeds and syrup-soaked red and white beans are in the bottom of the bowl, underneath the ice layer. The ice is laced with a mixture of condensed and evaporated milks and brightly colored syrups, made at the restaurant.

The red syrup is rose flavored, while the green syrup tastes of pandan, a popular seasoning for sweets in Southeast Asia that reminds me vaguely of butterscotch and fresh hay. The final touch is a handful of slivered jackfruit scattered over the top. I've eaten ice kacang many times in Singapore, and this one was every bit as enjoyable.


In South Korea, where summers are brutally hot and humid, everyone eats bingsu (water ice). Families make it at home with ice machines and components from neighborhood markets. Like other icy desserts, it's an assembly job rather than something that requires cooking. There's so much to it that sometimes I eat nothing but bingsu for lunch. Almost every coffee shop in Koreatown serves this dessert, though ingredients vary from place to place.

One of the most spectacular is the fruit-laden bingsu at Nicole's Gourmet Coffee & Chocolate shop in Koreatown Plaza. The ice, mounded in a heavy goblet, is topped with a thick layer of sweet red beans, then a heap of fresh fruits including strawberries, banana, kiwi and cantaloupe.

On top goes a scoop of green tea ice cream crowned with a piece of fruit. Two kinds of milk and a red fruit syrup are squirted on during the assembly.

I also like the bingsu at Coffeecana, on the second floor of a mall on Wilshire Boulevard. The shop's red bean bingsu includes tiny, chewy, white rice cakes about the size of chickpeas, along with beans, diced pineapple, vanilla ice cream and, of course, plenty of ice. A jaunty puff of whipped cream covered with candy sprinkles and topped with a cherry makes it look like a soda fountain special.

The ultimate place for bingsu, though, would have to be Ice Kiss on West 6th Street. The business card of this small coffee shop says, in Korean, that it is a bingsu specialist.

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