Not All Hawaiian Shaved Ice is Created Equal

Lychee/Mango with condensed milk and custard
What was your go-to flavor of snow cone as a child? Mine was rainbow. I liked the beautiful array of colors and the thought that I could get more than one flavor. Of course those flavors all melded into one fruit-punchy flavor in reality. Those snow cones were coarse and crude compared to shaved ice.

Most of us grew up with snow cones, not shaved ice. Not so the Hawaiians where shaved ice is another cultural part of their heritage. 
Shave ice traces its history to Japan, where it is known as Kakigori and dates back to the Heian Period.[3] "Shave ice enjoyed world-wide popularity after Japanese plantation workers immigrated to the Hawaiian islands and took their traditional dessert with them, creating shave ice from large blocks of ice and using Japanese swords which were family heirlooms."
Unlike snow cones which are made with crushed ice, shaved ice is just that - ice shaved from an ice block using a fine edged blade. This means that the flavorings are absorbed into the ice crystals instead of just soaking around the crushed ice like in snow cones. Snow cones have that pool of syrup at the bottom of the cup, shaved ice doesn't.

I was never a big snow cone fan and could take or leave the shaved ice as well. But I was in Hawaii and so I had to try a true Hawaiian shaved ice. My first one was after I had been mopeding all day. I had rented a moped and rode clear around to Kuhuku on the north shore. On my way home I needed a break and some liquids, so I stopped in Haleiwa. At this point I was still not paying attention to shaved ice, the famous stores, etc. I just saw one place selling it, with a line, and stepped in. Turned out it was Matsumoto's, a store with a reputation for its shaved ice.

I got passion fruit, coconut, and mango with condensed milk. I was surprised at how fine the ice was shaved. Unfortunately I made the haole mistake of losing the top half of it onto the ground - the part with the condensed milk!

The next day I was on Waikiki craving a bubble tea but couldn't find one. I settled for a shaved ice. It was terrible in comparison! That's when I realized not all shaved ice is created equal.

That night at dinner my tablemate told me how she and her friends were on a search for the best Hawaiian shaved ice like they grew up with. Her judging was based on sacred memories and the flavor of strawberry, the most popular of the Hawaiians because it was the most common in the early days. She recommended I try a couple of places she named.

The next day I googled and found that Waiola was on the way back to my hotel (by moped). I also realized that it had been the one recommended to me by reader Benny Gee. I pulled up to find the fire truck taking a break there and considered that to be a good sign.

This time I needed a snack to tide me over and so I got one with custard in the bottom and mango/lychee syrups (shown above). I was amazed to find that this one was even better than Matsumoto's! I stepped into the store and asked the owner why theirs was so much better. Was it a sharper blade? Did they use distilled water? The owner told me that his family had been making them this way for 30 years and that it was a family secret. He said it wasn't just one thing, but a few things that made their ice different.

I had wanted to try one more stop recommended by my new friend, food blogger NonstopMari, on my last night but couldn't get there due to the rain. She had told me to go to Your Kitchen because they make their own syrups instead of relying on bottled ones. Next time.

Taiwanese shaved ice

My final comment on shaved ice is on the Taiwanese version. I had again been recommended to try it by my dinner partners and told to go to City Cafe. Taiwanese style uses a brown sugar syrup and then you choose toppings, like we do for frozen yogurt. Their toppings are a bit more unusual. They have the mochi, to be sure, but also jellies, tapioca pearls, custard, red beans, soft peanuts, condensed milk, and more. I found that it was very similar to Filipino halo halo, but served in a bowl instead of parfait style.

Considering I wasn't a fan when I got there, I learned a lot about shaved ice in my week's stay. What I learned is that they are not all created equal and that it pays to hunt down the best.