Oh, shave ice—the glorified “snow cone,” as mainlanders sometimes label it. What they don’t understand is that just like ancient Egypt’s social pyramid, there are also levels to shave ice that are essential for its overall function as the ruling dessert amongst Hawaii’s empire of local goodies. So let’s dissect each layer of the icy treat that Japanese immigrants of the 20th century introduced, who made the local favorite with a machete blade and sold it to eager plantation workers on Sundays.
The Ice Cream
You might want to insert the words macadamia nut between “the” and “ice cream” because you will be carded after asking for kama‘aina discount if you don’t go with Hawaii’s favorite ice cream flavor. The Roselani ice cream scoops sitting at the bottom of your cup are symbolic of the dairy treat’s role as the foundation for shave ice. Hawaiian shave ice was built upon ice cream.
And no, it’s not “shaved ice.” The girls at Ululani’s didn’t take their Gillete razors and hack away at an ice block. Shave ice is a delicacy, its fine consistency to be celebrated in the mouth. Don’t confuse it with the granular texture of snow cones; Hawaii utilizes a razor blade to make the ice fluffy and extra absorbent of flavors. Every time you bite down on your first spoonful of shave ice, your tastebuds will match the joy of someone whose cheek has felt the first snowflake of winter. Or, in local terms, someone whose akole finally feels the relieving touch of sand after a wipeout on Big Beach.
Guava, lilikoi, blue raspberry, even pickled mango*–there’s a wide spectrum of flavors in which to douse your shave ice. Just go to any shave ice shack and check out their listing of flavors. They’re usually so vast that it looks like an electronic board depicting arrivals and departures at OGG. But quality does not trump quantity in the world of Hawaiian shave ice. You can have three syrups crammed into your purple cup and still savor the tartness of sour apple and the sweetness of pink bubble gum without it becoming some weird brown concoction (as is the fate of all Play-dohs).
Us islanders may not experience snow, but we have something better: snow caps. As if you couldn’t imagine your cotton candy shave ice to be any more sugary, the sweetened condensed milk drizzled on top of your pink ice flakes gives it that extra kick. Not trying to sound like a judge on Chopped, but a snow cap literally does make shave ice melt in your mouth.
Arguably the pharaoh of the frosty delicacy, toppings sit atop of the carefully structured shave ice. Add-ons such as mochi, azuki beans, shredded coconut and li hing mui powder are treated with royalty, as their extra prices demonstrate. The fancy garnishments are a trademark of a complete cup or cone of classic Hawaiian shave ice.
*We’ll reserve the whole “pickled mango” vs. “pickle mango” debate for another day.