Story by Derek Paiva
Consider the shave ice.
The cool-comfort-for-warm-days treat has been a perennial favorite of both Hawaii residents and visitors ever since late 19th century immigrant Japanese sugar and pineapple plantation laborers first sought heat relief in the fields with it more than a century ago. Setting a large block of ice under a shaded tree, a field worker or entrepreneurial vendor would shave fine white ice flakes with a hand-held blade, pack the powder into a small snow dome and top it with sweet syrup. Simple. Refreshing. Tasty.
Though Hawaii-embraced, shave ice is not actually Hawaii-born.
Known as kakigori in Japan, the treat is believed to have been around since the country’s Heian period (794-1185 A.D.). Hawaii shave ice and kakigori share and begin with two similar basic ingredients—powdery ice flakes, topped with flavored syrup. Kakigori, however, adds a third level of sugary wonderfulness to its main ingredient list with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. Here in Hawaii, sweetened condensed milk more often serves as one of several distinct shave ice toppings available for a few extra coins.
Perhaps matched only by the multitude of flavored syrups dreamed up by the best shave ice stands – from the familiar strawberry, lilikoi (passion fruit) and pineapple, to less familiar calamansi, pickled mango, mountain apple, ginger and even kale-spinach—toppings are what take the Hawaii shave ice experience to a whole other level.
The question for the novice shave ice customer, unfamiliar with what exactly azuki beans, mochi balls, li hing powder and other toppings are, then becomes: What exactly are these add-ons and what do they add taste-wise to my dome of shave ice?
One of the great things about shave ice is it’ll take just about any topping put on it—from fresh fruit and toasted coconut flakes to haupia cream and chocolate chips—and still taste good to someone. In the interest of going back to shave ice basics, however, here’s a handy guide to understanding the five standard bearing extra toppings you’ll find at any reputable Hawaii shave ice stand.
Stay frosty, my friends.
Sweetened condensed milk
Add this blanket of thick, sugary nirvana onto your shave ice for the first time, dig into the heady blend of sweet cream and flavored ice it creates, and you’ll spurn the memory of every bowl or cone you’ve ever tried before it. Many stands call the topping a “snow cap” because of its resemblance to fresh powder on a mountaintop once it settles on your ice dome. We just call it absolutely necessary.
The most common question asked by shave ice newbies upon seeing this on a topping menu is usually, “Beans? On shave ice?” Try it. The best Hawaii shave ice stands craft their own azuki bean toppings, made by boiling the sweet East Asian-grown bean until it softens, then adding more sugary goodness. The topping is layered beneath the ice, over the ice, or, if you really love the stuff, both. Its pros and cons, depending on your personal taste, are added texture and sweetness.
Speaking of texture. Ever find yourself thinking, ‘You know, I like shave ice, but it just isn’t chewy enough for me.” Then ask your shave ice professional to top or layer your ice dome with these miniscule spheres of sweet Japanese rice cake rendered soft and chewy in sugary syrup. Combine with azuki beans for an interesting texture combo.
Vanilla ice cream
Technically speaking, ice cream doesn’t really “top” shave ice. But packed deep within your dome of ice and allowed to soften and blend with the sweetness of your syrup flavors, a scoop of vanilla ice cream transforms into a milk-thick liquid delight perfect for straw slurping. Some stands offer multiple ice cream flavors, but vanilla pairs best with just about every syrup.
Li hing powder
If every one of the 100-percent-sweet toppings above bore you, a light dusting of this ominous-looking scarlet powder found in Chinese preserved fruits and candies (and all over the food spectrum in Hawaii) brings a good dose of salt and sour with its sweetness. Never had it before? Go easy on the dusting. Love the stuff? Go for broke, kids.
About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at email@example.com.