One of the best things about summer is sweet cold desserts, preferably consumed while basking in the warm glow of the sun. Ice cream is, of course, one of the most classic options. But in recent years, shaved ice desserts have become an increasingly popular alternative. And I’m not talking about your basic snow cone.

Countries and cultures around the world have been making and eating their own unique shaved ice desserts for thousands of years. From Italian ice to Taiwanese bao bing, icy sweet refreshment is a global phenomena.

I’ll be the first to admit, I used to think the shaved ice dessert canon was limited to gravelly, unevenly syruped snow cones. Oh, how wrong I was. My icy sweet awakening began in an unlikely locale — Alaska. It was there that I first experienced Halo-Halo. This Filipino dessert, Tagalog for “mix-mix,” consists of crushed ice, evaporated milk or coconut milk, and a mix of delicious toppings, such as ube jam, sweet beans, flan, coconut, fruit, and ube ice cream. The blend of creamy, crunchy, and chewy flavors with ice was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and I was hooked.

What is shave ice?

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

Hawaiian shave ice (or ice shave, if you’re on the Big Island) is one of the most well-known ice-based confections. Hawaiian shave ice is descended from kakigōri, a chipped ice dessert that has been made in Japan for 1500 years.

“Shave ice was brought over to Hawaii by the Japanese immigrants during the plantation days,” Remy Matsumoto, general manager of Matsumoto Shave Ice, told Spoon University. “There were shave ice shops operated by many of the first-generation Japanese before we opened our shop in the 50’s. It has become a staple in Hawaii because it’s warm year-round, which makes people crave something cold. It’s the warm climate in Hawaii that helped make shave ice what it is today.”

Former President (and Hawaii resident) Barack Obama introduced many Americans to Hawaiian shave ice with his much-documented devotion to the refreshingly icy treat. His classic order of guava orange, cherry, and lemon-lime was famously dubbed the “snowbama.”

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

Matsumoto’s is perhaps the most iconic Hawaiian shave ice spot in the world. The family-run business has been a North Shore institution since 1951, serving up refreshing treats to surfers, tourists, and celebrities alike. During peak season, Matsumoto’s sells over 1,000 shave ices daily. They’ve gained a die-hard following over their 72 years of business. “We once had a customer who ate six to seven shave ices…He told me it was because he didn’t know when he’d be able to eat it again,” Remy said. “We had a couple who came to our shop every year, from the time they were dating to when they got married and had kids. They showed us a photo album of their visits and told us how they are passing this tradition down to the next generation,” she added. So clearly, this is some exceptional shave ice. But what makes it so special?

The shave ice texture

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

Traditional Hawaiian shave ice is known for its “smooth and fine consistency that can absorb syrup better than a snow cone. It doesn’t just fall to the bottom,” said Remy. This is a key difference between snow cones and shave ice. While snow cones are created by simply crushing ice into granules, shave ice is produced by shaving ice across a very sharp blade, which gives it that signature fluffy-yet-smooth texture. Another important element is the packing of the ice. According to Remy, “Every business makes their shave ice differently…we’ve always used a big spoon to shape our ice into a round dome and we also like to place our ice cream and beans on the bottom of the bowl.”

The shave ice flavors

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

Hawaiian shave ice is incredibly customizable, with a wide variety of unique flavors and toppings to choose from. Matsumoto’s currently offers 39 flavors, with unique to the island options like Li Hing Mui and Lilikoi, alongside Japanese flavors such as Green Tea and White Peach. They also offer toppings inspired by Japanese treats, such as mochi and azuki beans.

Additionally, Matsumoto’s offers a variety of delicious specialty creations. “Something unique that you can only find at our shop is our Ichiban Special (Ichiban means #1 in Japanese),” Remy said. “It’s a shave ice served in an edible waffle tray imported from Japan and comes with all our toppings! The waffle tray can hold a shave ice up to two hours and we love that it’s eco-friendly.” Shave ice, ice cream, azuki beans, mochi, waffles, and sustainability? I have a feeling Waffles & Mochi host Michelle Obama would approve.

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

Is shave ice trending?

In recent years, a plethora of shave ice shops have been popping up, beyond your basic Kona ice truck. “In Hawaii, we’ve been starting to see more Korean and Taiwanese style shave ice shops popping up here and there, but also many new businesses doing their own take on a traditional Hawaiian shave ice,” Remy said. “It’s nice because now you can get shave ice almost anywhere on the island!” And the trend isn’t limited to Hawaii. “So many more people from across the country have been reaching out to us, asking for advice on how to open their own shave ice shop,” she added.

So what’s behind this rise in popularity? “Shave ice has always been an affordable and refreshing treat, but it could be social media that has contributed to this trend,” said Remy. It’s true, shave ice is naturally photogenic, and we know TikTok loves a beautiful and brightly colored food trend. But it’s not just about looks. “Some may say that it’s just sugar and water, but to us this dessert is so much more than that. Different variations of shave ice are enjoyed in different cultures as well, so we are not surprised that it has become this popular,” Remy added.

Photo courtesy of Matsumoto Shave Ice

The rise in popularity is good news for icy dessert lovers everywhere. “What’s nice about shave ice is that every business has their own unique way of making it,” Remy said. “For us, the classic Hawaii style is a shave ice with ice cream or azuki beans in a cone, consumed with a wooden spoon. You can now find shave ice with so many more unique toppings and flavors.” But the popularity of shave ice isn’t just a passing phase, Remy added. “We believe that shave ice will always be a staple, at least for us in Hawaii where the climate is warm all year long. We don’t think it’s just a trend that will come and go.”