by Nancy Bestor
You might think that shave ice and snow cones are the same thing. You’d be wrong though. Very wrong. Yes, they are both sweet treats. Yes, they are both made of ice. And yes, they are both drizzled with flavored syrup. But any Hawaiian will tell you that a snow cone is definitely not the same thing as shave ice. And having sampled both several times, I absolutely agree.
Amazingly, we didn’t know about shave ice on our first trip to Hawaii, in 2001. Eight days on Maui wasted. But on subsequent visits to the islands, friends and customers encouraged us to try this Hawaiian delicacy. And boy, are we glad we did. Shave ice is just what it sounds like—ice, shaved by a special machine into a fluffy, fine, and powdery consistency that is then enhanced by a wide assortment of sweet flavored syrups that are drizzled on top. If you’re really living large, you can get it served over a scoop of ice cream, and/or have sweetened condensed milk poured over the top (a snow cap). There are lots of shave ice stands throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the most popular spots often have significant lines at shave ice rush hour.
Shave ice actually traces its history to Japan, where in the very early days (1185 A.D.) ice was a delicacy. It was hauled down from the mountains in the winter and stored in caves. Since ice was rare, shave ice was quite the luxury and thus was reserved for royalty. When Japanese plantation workers immigrated to Hawaii, they brought this traditional dessert with them.
I’m not a huge fan of the snow cone. Inevitably, it gets crunchy, and the flavored syrup is always gone long before the “snow,” leaving you with a pile of tasteless ice. Not so with shave ice. The super-fine shavings allow it to maintain its fresh, powdery-snow consistency, and also allow the delicious syrup flavorings to deeply penetrate and seemingly become a part of the ice.
We’ve tried shave ice at many different spots in Hawaii, and our favorite (and the favorite of Yelp and Trip Advisor reviewers as well) is Ululani’s. With several locations on Maui, Ululani’s shave ice is delicious, the service is great, and the flavor choices are plenty. Jo Jo’s on Kauai is also a top spot and highly rated by The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook.
And just so we’re clear, it is “shave ice.” It is not “shaved ice.” I don’t know why, but if you don’t want to sound like a tourist, please leave off the D.