Hawaii's Iconic Shave Ice Has Centuries-Old History

The popular sweet, icy treat is made with delicate shaved ice and a rainbow of syrups.

Shave Ice Hawaii local food woman eating hawaiian shaved ice cream treat in Honolulu Waikiki beach, Hawaii, USA
Photo: Maridav/Getty Images

When I find myself in the fortunate situation of traveling to Hawaii, one thing instantly pops into my mind — even before snorkeling spots, swaying palm trees, and warm sunshine.

Shave ice.

Chances are that before my plane touches down, I've already scoped out the shave ice spots nearest the airport, and closest to where I'm staying, so that I can ensure myself a shave ice a day (or more!).

Where Did Hawaiian Shave Ice Originate?

Though colorful photos of Hawaiian shave ice have filled Instagram grids for years now, the sweet, icy treat actually dates back to Japan in the seventh and ninth centuries A.D., when kakigori, Japanese for sweetened shaved ice, grew in popularity.

Kakigori made its way to the shores of the Hawaiian islands when Japanese immigrants arrived to work on sugar plantations. Some stores that opened in the early 1900s to serve the plantation workers offered shave ice, and the treat became a staple in Hawaii by the mid-1900s.

Shave Ice vs. Snow Cones

What's the difference between Hawaiian shave ice and snow cones found on the mainland? I'm glad you asked! Shave ice is, well, ice shaved to create a consistency not unlike powdered snow. Snow cones tend to be made of crushed ice.

Each purveyor of Hawaiian shave ice (because many who live on the Hawaiian islands speak Pidgin, the "d" is dropped from shaved) has a few things in common: blocks of ice, a machine that finely shaves the ice, and an array of brightly-colored flavors from which to choose. How they present their creations may differ — from layering atop scoops of ice cream (macadamia nut, or mac nut, is a fave) and adding a variety of optional toppings, including a snow cap (sweetened condensed milk), mochi, and azuki beans, to name a few.

Over the years, my visits to Hawaii have included many, many servings of shave ice, and I can personally attest to the differences between shave ice spots. Don't get me wrong — they're all delicious, just different in little ways.

Shave Ice on Hawai'i

On a recent trip to the Island of Hawai'i (AKA the Big Island), it took nearly two full days to get my shave ice fix, mostly because we were staying in the small, remote town of Volcano, just outside of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

After a day trip to the town of Hilo, I took my husband, sister, and nephew for their first Hawaiian shave ice experience at Da Hawaiian Brain Freeze Shave Ice & Ice Cream, which we found on Yelp. The long line indicated we were in the right place, and we decided we'd each get a keiki (child) size.

Da Hawaiian Brain Freeze
Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes

They were massive! I opted for my favorite flavor combination: lilikoi (passionfruit), orange, and guava, AKA POG. I enjoy mine topped with a sprinkling of li hing mui powder, a sweet, salty, and sour powder made from dried salted plums. Other flavor combinations enjoyed that day were coconut/mango/li hing mui gummybear, lilikoi/guava/pineapple, and li hing mei/strawberry.

When we arrived on the Kona side of the island for the rest of our stay, the first stop was Ululani's Gourmet Hawaiian Shave Ice. I tasted Ululani's a few years ago during a visit to Maui, their home island, and the flavors have stayed with me since. I was thrilled to see a shop opened in Kona and got in line for another POG.

Over the course of the next few days we ordered more POGs, lilikoi/guava/coconut, lime-lemon/pink lemonade, and locals' favorite combinations like Local Motion (li hing mui/mango/pineapple) with a scoop of vanilla mac nut and a snowcap, and Lahaina (pineapple/coconut/banana).

There's just something about the consistency of Ululani's shave ice that is unlike any others; it's smooth and silky and almost has an ice cream mouth feel rather than ice.

Ululani's shave ice single with sign in background
Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes

When asked what makes their shave ice different from the others, David Yamashiro, co-founder and co-owner of Ululani's with his wife, Ululani, says, "We are shave ice experts and innovators. A lot of what we do has never been done before, and some of what we do is copied all over the world. It has even changed the way the most popular old school shave ice companies now do things.

"Our shave ice is finer than anyone else's, except for Waiola's Shave Ice on Oahu," Yamashiro continues. "It's the finest possible, and it takes know-how, effort, and a razor-sharp blade."

Additionally, Yamashiro says that the Ululani's team makes all of their own ice and syrups with ultra-purified water using reverse osmosis with an ultra-violet blast that "gives our ice and syrups a pure, clean taste that is consistent through all of our shops."

The team also makes all of their syrups with their own recipes, using pure cane sugar, premium purees (local and fresh when in season or possible), and premium concentrates.

"Our shaving, packing, and pouring style is different," Yamashiro adds. "The result is a texture totally unlike what you'd expect.

"You really can't imagine it unless you have tried our shave ice."

I, for one, can attest to that. Another POG, please!

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