What is Hawaiian Shave Ice? a Guide to Hawaii’s Favorite Treat

No trip to Hawaii is complete without trying the legendary Hawaiian Shave Ice. These colorful fruity frozen treats are a Hawaiian mainstay and something you simply have to try on your visit. The smooth fruity flavors and ice-cold refreshments are the perfect treats to cool you off on one of Maui’s hot sunny afternoons. However, Shave ice is not that well known outside of Hawaii so What is Hawaiin Shave Ice?

We explain everything you need to know about Hawaii’s favorite Icey treat in our full guide to Hawaiian Shave ice. We also point you in the direction of some of the best outlets on the islands so you can grab your own Shave Ice and cool off Island Style.

What is Hawaiian Shave Ice?

What is Hawaiian Shave Ice?

Well actually it really is exactly what it says on the tin, but also it is far more complicated. Really it is just ice that has been shaved. Shaved as you would a block of Parmesan, not your face, as in a sharp blade is passed across the surface of the block of ice removing a small ribbon of ice.

This ice is collected into a mound and served with a huge range of flavored syrups and additional, optional toppings. Real Shave Ice should be eaten with a spoon as the ice shavings absorb the flavor so the syrups and ices are essentially one, so you just scoop up the flavored ice and eat it, with the fine ice crystals melting on the tongue.

Snow Cones vs Shave Ice

plain Hawaiian Shave Ice

“Ah, so it’s like a snow cone?”

We often hear that statement when explaining Shave Ice, and honestly, it’s hard to respond without resorting to profanity. Shave ice is so far from a Snow Cone it’s hard to overstate the difference. Really, it is understandable as it does appear they are inextricably linked. But the process of shaving the ice rather than crushing it leads to a completely different product.

It is mainly down to mouth feel. The mouth is a very sensitive part of the body; you can sense and feel very small objects with it. The larger ice chunks that inevitably remain in the Snow Cones and crushed ice are noticeable and unpleasant in the mouth and provide a harsh coldness, the ultra-fine shave ices feel silky smooth and simply melt on the tongue.

Again the fineness of the grain changes the way shave ice holds the flavor. With crushed ice, the syrups sink to the bottom and pool almost becoming a drink, most snow cones are served with a straw for this reason. We have all slurped hard on snow cones and turned the tops white as the flavor drains out. This does not happen with Shave Ice as the flavor is retained throughout.

It is essentially a much more refined product through and through.

Shave Ice or Shaved Ice?

We sometimes hear people call it Shaved ice, as grammatically that is correct. But it is not correct. The term is Shave Ice. Yes, it makes no sense, but then nor does Ice Cream, it’s simply the correct term and came about through Pidgin English translations.

Shaved ice is a thing, but it’s not the same. Shaved ice is basically a Snow Cone and can be derided as such. Real Hawaiian Shave ice is fine as snow and far more delicious than and, Snow Cone, Shaved Ice, or low-quality imitation. You will find Shaved Ice in Hawaii, normally posing as Shave Ice, usually from low-end vendors who lack the machinery and skill to deliver real shave ice and who cater to tourists who do not really no better.

If it crunches at all it’s not Shave Ice!

Flavors

There is a wide range of flavors used to flavor Shave Ice, the best shops use natural flavors but you find a lot of artificial syrup too. The base of all favors is the syrup. This is traditionally a simple syrup, just sugar and water reduced down and then flavored with fruit flavors.

But the more commercial varieties can be a bit more chemically enhanced and there are plenty of sugar-free options now on the market. They don’t taste as good but are guilt-free as they make shave ice almost calorie-free!

As this is Hawaii the flavors lean towards tropical fruits, Mango, Pineapple, Guava, Coconut, and Passion fruit. The best shops will have 30-40+ flavors to choose from and really the hard part is nailing down your favorite!

The other thing to consider is that 99% of Shave ice is sold in flavor combinations. There will always be a selection of “favorite” combos, or you can just make your own up from the list of flavors. These combos are not only great tasting but they add a visual flourish to the dessert as the rainbow colors contrast and can act like walking billboards. Just seeing someone walking down the street with a bright fruity shave ice instantly calls you to hunt out the vendor!

Not all flavors are fruity and there are some outliers that taste great but only with careful selection. Leche() Coffee, chocolate, root beer, wedding cake, and even strangers and more unique flavors can be found. These can taste great, but get them in a bad combo and you could ruin your Ice! Coffee and Mango, probably aren’t going to flow too well! However, the ice really does hold its flavor well so even with the worst mixes there will still be large parts of the ice that taste of the individual choices.

Toppings and Extra

Hawaiian Shave Ice

Shave Ice can be enjoyed on its own, just a large helping of icey goodness BUT there are some optional extras, some of which we think are practically essential!

Base – There are two main options for the base Ice-Cream or Azuki beans. We don’t get the beans, this stems from the Japanese origins of the dessert, and beans are well used in desserts in these regions, but from the west, we don’t really see beans as dessert. We have tried them but don’t get on. Ice-Cream, on the other hand, takes the less-than-humble shave ice to even greater stratospheric levels!

We just won’t order Shave ice without an ice cream base! The sweet and creamy goo that awaits you finishing off the flavored ice above is really something else!

Toppings – The other options you have are the toppings. Again a Snow-Cap is barely optional, this is sweetened condensed milk that freezes on contact with the ice and adds a sweet milky taste that is unbeatable.

Other popular options are toasted coconut or almonds. Fresh Mochi, a sweet gelatinous dessert made from Rice Flour, Li hing mui Power as a Chinese Condiment made from plums worth trying but go easy if you are unused to it, or haupia (Coconut) cream. Fresh fruit and fruit purees can also be used.

These are really trial and error for tourists as we often don’t really know what some of these options are so you just have to try. We tend to go for an Icecream base and Snow Cap with a dusting of Li hing mui powder.

Best places to get great Shave-Ice

Hawaiian Shave Ice

Not all Shave Ice is the same, some stores use ultra-fine shavings, premium flavors from real fruits and essences, and top-quality toppings and bases, others are glorified snow cones doused in cheap syrups dancing with artificial flavors and colors. Here are a few of our top picks, but the key is to follow the locals.

Remember at popular locations queues of up to 30 mins are not a rare occurrence!

Oahu

Matsumoto Shave Ice

One of the most famous and most popular Shave Ice locations in Hawaii. Situated in the Historic town of Haleʻiwa, and has been serving Shave Ice since the 1950s. It is possible that a trip all the way over to the north Shore to visit Matsumoto’s is worth it, but tbh there is so much to see and do over here that it’s just part of the incredible north shore experience.

Waiola Shave Ice

Waiola is even older than Matsumoto’s and has been serving ices since the 1940s, since before Pearl Harbor was attacked! In all that time, they have definitely learned the art of Ice Shaving! It is not the most varied menu but everything is perfect, not too sweet and the ice is super fine!

Maui

Ululani’s

Our favorite shave ice retailer in Maui and one that has a large number of outlets across the Island. Lahaina, Kaanapali, Kihei, Maui Lani, Kahului, Paia and even one over in Kona (see below). They use fresh fruit syrups, gourmet ice cream, great toppings, and sure fine Ice Shavings. It is exactly how Shave Ice is meant to be!

Breakwall Shave Ice

If Shave ice is good, Breakwall has managed to make it even better. Here you can actually buy Adult Shave Ice! Mango Margarita, Mudslide, Strawberry Guava Daiquiri, Mojito Float, Mai Tai, and Pina Colada flavor Shave Ice Cocktails. They even have a Happy Hour where the Adult Shave Ice is only $6.50…Their regular Shave Ice is pretty good too!

Lorraine Shave Ice

This is a real backyard Shave Ice location. On the narrow winding Kahekili Highway around the far coast of West Maui, just before the road become forbidden to Hire Cars at Kahakuloa. You will see a small driveway with Lorraine Shave Ice signposted.

This little stall only uses natural flavors grown locally. She also sells tropical fruits, Banana Bread, Tasted Coconut Chips, and a few other locally produced items. This is right by Julia’s Banana bread one of the best Banana Bread on the Island.

Kuaui

Wailua Shave Ice

Hawaii – Big Island

Ululani’s

Maui’s best Shave Ice now has a Big Island Location

Kula Shave Ice

Outside Hawaii?

Honestly, we are still searching. We know you can get great shave ice in Japan where it is called Kakigōri but we do not travel there often. We have found it in many locations on the mainland USA but it has always been junk. Please let us know if you have found a real Shave Ice retailer outside of the Hawaiian Islands.

Have Your Say

Let us know your thoughts on Hawaiian Shave Ice. Have you ever tried one? Are you looking forward to trying you first on your next visit? Or are you a real aficionado and only eat the best Shave Ice? Whatever you have to say let us know in the comments below and if you have any questions fire away.

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