The Colorful Story Behind Shave Ice

The Colorful Story Behind Shave Ice

With its bright swatches of color and perfectly chipped ice, there are few things in this world more delightful than digging into a mouth-watering shave ice on a hot afternoon in Hawaiʻi.

And while many cultures have created their own take on flavored ice, Hawai’i’s variety has a unique and rich history that’s as bold as any of the flavors you’ll find on your favorite bowl of the frosty goodness.

Unlike other forms of flavored icy treats, shave ice (shave, not shaved, ice) is made by literally shaving small bits of ice from a large block. In other versions, commonly known as snow cones, the ice is crushed and syrup is simply poured over – but that doesn’t fly in the islands. By shaving the ice from the block—as opposed to simply crushing it—the syrups are better absorbed by the ice. The result is a fluffy, snowflake-like, melt-in-your-mouth, texture that’s unrivaled in its deliciousness.

Four colorful cups of shave ice with strawsThe process of shaving the ice can be traced back to Japanese plantation workers who immigrated to the islands in the 19 th century. In Japan, shave ice is referred to as kakigori and dates back nearly 1,000 years to the Heian Period. When the plantation workers arrived in Hawai’i, they brought their taste for the delectable treat with them and some reports have even suggested that Japanese heirloom swords were originally used to finely shave the ice. Proof of the hard-working culture that dominated plantation life, shave ice was originally sold only on Sundays, the sole day of the week plantation workers didn’t have to work the fields. Soon, and understandably so, shave ice took root in the islands. By the 1920s, shops selling the snowy treat had popped up all over the state.

Shave ice machine processing ice into a cup being held by a hand

Not only is the way we slice our ice unique in the islands, but the toppings we choose for our shave ice is reflective of the many cultures that have forged our collective identity. Take for instance azuki beans and ice cream, both traditional accoutrements in Hawaiian shave ice. Azuki bean paste and a scoop of ice cream is often found at the base of this slushy dish. Li-hing mui, a salty and dried plum with a very distinct flavor that traces its origins back to China, is also a commonly added topping.

Hand pouring red colored flavoring onto a cup of shave ice

While everyone has their favorite shave ice vendor (including President Obama, who’s often spotted digging into one while back home on O’ahu) in Town, the award-winning Waiola Shave Ice, is the locals’ pick. Waiola has built an enormous following of hungry locals craving the sweet and refreshing taste year round.

Young child sits close to a shave ice truck waiting to be served

With our rich history, warm climate, and collective appreciation for exotic flavors, it’s clear that Hawai’i just can’t get enough shave ice.