This post was originally published on January 29, 2020 and was most recently updated on December 15, 2023.
As you may have noticed from my posts about Maui and Hilo, I have a thing for shave ice. It's the perfect pick-me-up on a hot Hawaiian afternoon, and it's also a local specialty that you probably won't find on the mainland. Wondering what the deal is with the brightly-hued dessert pictured above? Here's your guide to Hawaiian shave ice.
What is shave ice?
Shave ice is a domed mound of ice drizzled with flavored syrup, served in a cup and eaten with a spoon. While it bears some resemblance to a snow cone, in my opinion shave ice is far superior. Since it's made with shaved (rather than crushed) ice, syrup can be absorbed by the ice instead of pooling at the bottom of the cup. Shave ice was originally brought to Hawaii in the early 1900s by Japanese immigrants and quickly became a beloved local treat.
Shave ice shops typically offer a wide range of colorfully flavored syrups to choose from, including fruit flavors like strawberry, cherry, and blue raspberry, and locally-influenced options like guava, lilikoi (passion fruit), and pineapple.
Where can I find the best shave ice?
Shave ice is widely available throughout Hawaii. It's sold from dedicated shave ice shops and food trucks, and some retail shops and candy stores have a shave ice counter. I prefer places that make their own syrups from fresh fruit or fruit juices rather than using mass-produced, artificially flavored syrups. Another thing to look for is whether the shave ice is poked all over with a chopstick before the syrup is drizzled on—that ensures that the syrup will penetrate all the way to the middle. There's nothing sadder than shave ice with a white, unflavored center.
My all-time favorite shave ice spot is Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice, which has several locations on Maui as well as franchisee locations in Honolulu on Oahu and Kailua Kona on the Big Island. They have about 50 different syrup flavors made with fruit purees and juices—if you can't decide, there's a long list of recommended combinations. Best of all, they'll add more syrup if you come across any white spots.
Waikomo Shave Ice serves all-natural shave ice, with syrups made from fruit puree. They have locations in Koloa on Kauai and Paia on Maui. Instead of picking your own toppings, their shave ice comes topped with fresh fruit, coconut cream, and honey—I loved how the honey complements the fruit syrups.
On the Big Island, Hilo's Kula Shave Ice is a must. Their syrups are made with organic fruit, and they offer vegan substitutions for popular dairy-based shave ice add-ins, like condensed coconut milk and vegan ice cream. They also have some unique add-ins like poi (a local specialty made from taro) and lilikoi butter.
Wishing Well Shave Ice has been serving organic and traditional shave ice from a vintage bus in Hanalei, Kauai since 1983. They truly have something for everyone, from cotton candy shave ice garnished with sprinkles to organic hibiscus lime shave ice topped with coconut cream.
How do I order shave ice?
First, you'll need to pick your flavors—typically two or three are included. The menu will usually also list some recommended combos if you need inspiration.
Personally, I prefer natural, tropical fruit flavors (after all, you're in Hawaii!) But it's totally up to you—in addition to fruit flavors, you'll often spot flavors like root beer, bubble gum, cotton candy, and vanilla.
While shave ice is delicious on its own, it's even better with toppings. My go-to is a snow cap, or a drizzle of condensed milk that makes the outer portion of your shave ice slightly creamy. Other common toppings include toasted coconut, mochi (cubes of sweetened, chewy rice cake), coconut cream, and li hing mui powder (a sweet, salty, and sour red powder made from dried plums, sugar, and licorice).
You can also add a filling, typically either a scoop of ice cream or azuki bean paste.
My favorite thing about shave ice is how much you can customize it to your tastes. Order something familiar or try something new, and enjoy your creation!
More posts about Hawaii
- A tourist's guide to grocery shopping in Hawaii
- 7 low-key things I loved about Hilo, Hawaii
- 14 Best Stops on the Road to Hana
- Is it worth it to spend the night in Hāna, Maui?
- Maui: Favorite places to eat, see, and stay
- Kaua'i: Favorite places to eat, see, and stay
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