An Icy Treat that Warms the Soul
When many travelers book a trip to the islands they’re ready to trade in the inclement weather back home – hail and 30-degree temperatures in April?! — for Hawaii’s balmy trade winds and sunny skies. And what better way to cool off in the islands than with some local flavor or shave ice (locals typically omit the “d” in shaved ice, which is what the dessert is referred to in the rest of the United States).
On a warm Saturday in the middle of summer you’ll often find long rows of keiki (children) lined up on benches fronting their favorite shave ice shop, slurping at their favorite flavors from paper or plastic cups.
Resembling a “snow cone” (which consists of crushed ice) Hawaii shave ice is made quite literally from shaved ice, giving it a very delicate, snow-like texture. The best shave ice doesn’t require a straw since the flavors are married throughout the ice and don’t puddle down at the bottom of the cup.
While many visitors and locals alike enjoy their shave ice with traditional flavors, such as vanilla and strawberry, in Hawaii syrups are inspired by local fruits and treats with options such as guava, li hing mui, lychee, lilikoi, mango and coconut.
Though shave ice may be a dessert most frequently associated with Hawaii it actually originated in Japan, where they know it as kakigori. Created during the Heian Period, the most popular kakigori flavors today include strawberry, cherry, lemon, green tea, grape, melon and “Blue Hawaii” – a sweet plum flavor with a colorless syrup. In Japan kakigori is sold as a street snack as well as at festivals, convenience stores, coffee shops and restaurants, and is most frequently topped with ice cream, azuki beans (sweetened red beans) and tapioca pearls. The dish made its way to the islands when Japanese plantation workers immigrated to Hawaii bringing this cool concoction with them.
An International Indulgence
Shave ice is a dish bringing diners brain freezes around the world – from Mexico and Nicaragua, where its known as raspado, to India where it’s known as chuski.
In Taiwan the dessert is known as baobing and is also found throughout Malaysia and China. This popular snack has been enjoyed from as early as seventh century A.D. when it was created by using a large mallet to crush ice into fine pieces, and drenched with sugarcane juice to add flavor. Today, Taiwanese shower their large mounds of ice shavings with fresh fruit toppings — such as strawberries, mangoes and watermelon – and other popular treats such as taro, azuki and mung beans, yams, sweetened peanuts, grass jelly and condensed milk.
Another country that enjoys its shave ice is the Philippines, where the dish is referred to as halo-halo (in Tagalog, meaning “mix-mix”) and topped with a selection of boiled sweet beans, such as kidney beans or garbanzo beans, and fruits, and dished up in either a tall glass or bowl. Here the natives throw in their favorite ingredients (from fruits and beans to other popular sweets) and then top it with the shaved ice. To seal the deal, halo-halo gets a sprinkle of sugar and a dollop of leche flan, sweet potato, ice cream or evaporated milk.
The Coolest Stands on the Island
In Hawaii your favorite shave ice stand tells as much about you as the high school you graduated from. And the truth of the matter is that if you asked 20 locals what their favorite shave ice shop is — chances are that you would get 20 different responses. Below is a sprinkling of some of the most well-known stands on Oahu.
Matsumoto Shave Ice (66-087 Kamehameha Hwy)
One of the most celebrated shave ice stands in the state, Matsumoto Shave Ice on Oahu’s north shore regularly attracts busloads of visitors to its wooden storefront and churns out more than 1,000 cups of shave ice daily for locals and visitors from around the world. Located in quaint Haleiwa Town, the tiny wooden shop focuses solely on serving up truckloads of shave ice – spooning up buckets of finely ground ice and a selection of logo items, such as totes and tees, for travelers to pick up for family and friends back home.
Started by Mamoru and Helen Mamoyo Matsumoto in 1951, Matsumoto Shave Ice has a story as sweet as the syrups it offers. Mamoru Matsumoto sailed to Hawaii with his brother to make a new life in America. He started out as a laborer on a sugar plantation, and also worked on the railroad, before becoming a salesman at Sakai Store. Through friends and family he met his wife, Helen Momoyo Ogi, and together they dreamed of owning their own business. The young couple had the opportunity to make good on their dream when Kazuo Tanaka offered them a storefront – the old Tanaka Store – in Haleiwa. The couple set up a grocery store there and quickly expanded their business to include a shave ice stand, attracting hordes of surfers and hippies to sip up the couple’s cool treats and homemade syrups.
Today Matsumoto Shave Ice is run by Mamoru and Helen’s son, Stanley and his wife Noriko and has expanded upon its original offerings, showcasing a wide variety of flavors – guests can select from more than 40 different syrups – including lesser-known options such as tangerine, pickled mango, lilikoi, papaya, mizore and melona.
Hours: Open daily from 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Waiola Shave Ice (2135 Waiola St)
An island staple since 1940, this off-the-beaten-path stand is a family owned and operated business which serves up two locations (one in McCully and another off Kapahulu Avenue) offering what many consider as some of the smoothest and finest shave ice in town. Waikiki-bound guests without a car need not fret missing out on their island shave ice experience. Located just a few miles drive from Oahu’s hotel hub – Waiola Shave Ice is situated in the heart of McCully, serving up perfect cones of soft ice from a storefront literally etched into the side of a building.
New-to-Waiola guests will want to keep a few things in mind before hitting up this shop – including Waiola’s unique and precise ordering system. To order first state the size of your shave ice, the “goodies” (any add ons such as ice cream, azuki beans, condensed milk, mocha balls, etc) and then your flavor(s) of choice. If your memory can’t serve you – never fret, there is a sign clearly placed at the front of the shop with their requested ordering method. And don’t forget to bring cash, credit cards aren’t accepted here.
If you think you’ve spotted Waiola before – you probably have. A beach-side location was erected at Ala Moana Beach Park for a segment for the hit TV show, Hawaii 5-0 in 2010.
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (820 W Hind Dr #116)
Settle your shave ice sweet tooth at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha (or “HOPA”) a place where aloha, and some of the best shave ice, is dished up daily. Here, customers can enjoy a taste of pure aloha with a variety of all-natural, homemade shave ice flavors and treats made to spread aloha and share the magic and beauty of the islands – one cup of ice at a time.
More than 50 years ago “Uncle Clay” visited his neighborhood candy shop and decided he would one day own that store. In 1996, that dream became a reality and Clay became the fourth owner of “Doe Fang” at Aina Haina Shopping Center. In 2007, Clay’s nephew, Bronson, inspired with the idea of social entrepreneurship and in an effort to keep the business afloat, launched Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, focusing solely on serving up shave ice.
The flavors here are as uniquely Hawaii as the aloha – enjoy local sweet potato syrup sweetened with Maui sugar and ice cream made from fresh Big Island milk and cinnamon. If you’re ready to try something new branch out with their kale flavored syrup!
Hours: Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Friday through Sunday from 10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.