Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shave Ice - More Than Just a Snow Cone

As a local kid living on the mainland, I often get asked what I miss most about Hawaii.  Ordinarily I'll pick my reply from a bevy of relevant answers from the weather, beaches, and scenery to the atmosphere and the people.  But as you may recall, this blog is dedicated to food and Hawaii, so let’s cut to the chase and talk about what really matters: the GRINDZ!

Now there are a whole lot of things to be missed about local cuisine, but fortunately for the wandering chef-in-training, the nature of many local recipes make them easy to replicate from anywhere with access to a supermarket with a well-stocked Asian foods aisle.  On the other hand, there are unique cases of local treats that are so special that, search where you may and try as you might, will never be quite as good as getting them fresh from the Aloha State.  And where better to start than with something that should be familiar (or is it?) to even the most clueless of mainlanders: shave ice.
A word of caution when discussing shave ice with a local: mind the spelling.  We don’t care what you call it on the mainland (because it’s not the same anyways), when you’re talking about the delicious frozen treat that holds a special place in the hearts of locals, it’s “shave ice.”  Not “shaveD ice,” and not “snow cone.” Shave ice.

A typical "snow cone."  Those crystals are so big you can see them from here!
Authentic shave ice.  Delicately shaven perfection.
 “What’s the big deal?” you might ask, “Isn’t it the same thing?”  After trying every place in California selling “shaved ice” or some other variant in a desperate attempt to sate my craving for authentic local shave ice, I can tell you that it most certainly is not.  How do you tell the difference?  Here’s a simple test: if you have to use your spoon like an ice pick to break a chunk loose, or if your “snow cone” goes “crunch” in your mouth at any point, it is definitely not shave ice.  You don’t pick at or crunch shave ice, you only effortlessly slide your spoon into soft, finely shaven goodness, scoop it into your mouth and feel it melt away into sweet, refreshing bliss.

Furthermore, unlike “shaved ice,” which you can often find being sold in a limited selection of overly-syrupy flavors alongside hot dogs and soda from kiosks eager to prey on hungry visitors to the park or zoo, shave ice in Hawaii is a culture unto itself.  Take a look at the following pictures:

Waiola's in McCully.  My personal favorite!
Shimazu's on School Street.  A (formerly) well-kept neighborhood secret.

Matsumoto's on the North Shore.  Perhaps the most famous among tourists to Hawaii
Just what are you looking at?  Makeshift stores that appear to be run out of lower-middle class dwellings?  Well, yes, but you are also looking at three of the most popular shave ice spots in Hawaii.  Just looking at these venues should tell you a lot: shave ice isn’t just a novelty substitute for a cold soda on a hot day; shave ice is firmly rooted in local culture, a treat so special that thousands of people every day drive out of their way, endure hair-pullingly bad parking arrangements (seriously, none of these places have more than a half dozen street parking stalls to fight over) and wait in extraordinarily long lines just to get their fix.

And if the flavor selection for mainland “snow cones” is the four-pack of cheap, brittle crayons they give you with the kid’s menu at CPK, the options at a good shave ice joint is the giant multi-tiered box of Crayolas with the built-in sharpener that you always begged mom to get you.  A good shave ice spot like Waiola’s in McCully will have a minimum of 30 homemade flavors that have been perfected to be just sweet enough without being overly sugary, a wide selection of toppings ranging from the conventional (chocolate syrup) to the unique (fresh lilikoi [passion fruit]cream).

I will leave you today with a friendly disclaimer: by all means visit the islands, try some of our authentic shave ice, and taste the difference yourself.  But buyer beware, as soon as your flight home touches down, visions of shave ice will creep into the back of your mind, teasing you with its sweet simplicity, and forevermore until you return to Hawaii, it will be that tantalizing itch that you can never quite scratch.  

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