Snapshots from Asia: Will the Real Shaved Ice Please Stand Up?

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Creamed corn has not a whit of cream yet lives up to its name through virtue of its milky, golden creaminess. Pig intestine noodles are completely vegetarian, yet no one would disagree with their resemblance to porcine tracts. Most foods deserve their names—even if the names don't always make sense. Because more often than not, you can see where the original christener was coming from.

Yet the one thing that stumps me is shaved ice. It doesn't matter what it's called—Japanese kakigōri, Pinoy halo halo, Korean bingsu, Thai nam kang sai, or Chinese bao bing—none of them have a consistency anywhere close to what I'd term "shaved." Ground, maybe—with their coarse, gritty grains that kind of lump together before going crunch in your mouth. But shaved?

Bear with me here, please. Think of the last time you fixed pasta or dessert. Think of the curls of cheese and chocolate slowly wafting from your microplane onto your food. Think of the richly marbled, paper-thin shavings of jamón ibérico that you paid $180 a pound for—every cent worth it. Think of flakes of Maldon sea salt and the way they dissolve expansively on your tongue. Then think of the sharp, granular bite of kosher salt. Am I the only one who's confused?

Yet "shaved ice," with its many variations, is almost universal. People eagerly dig in to its mound of toppings—roasted soybean powder, sweetened adzuki beans, immortal jelly, mochi, cornflakes, fresh fruit, condensed milk, syrups of all persuasions (fruit, palm sugar, chocolate, etc.), you name it. Back home in Singapore, many a sun-scorched afternoon was spent nursing a mountain of ice kacang and I know only too well its siren call. But, if I may be blunt—despite their collective delectability—ice kacang and all its "shaved ice" friends is as much shaved ice as ground beef is pastrami.

Several years ago at a Taiwan food fair however, a crowd thronged six-deep around a "snow ice" stall rescued me from my shaved ice quandary. Early birds gleefully making off with their laden bowls had my heart lub-dubbing in excitement—could it be, finally, something that truly deserved the name of "shaved ice?" With layers that nestled, ever so delicately, one on top of the other—like a pile of Kleenex or the cross-section of millefeuille–there could be no doubt about it. This was a bowl of shaved ice, its gossamer flakes of milky wonder dissolving so tenderly, so lightly on my tongue, that I nearly cried for joy.

Scoff at my tenderfoot nature if you will, but can you think of anything else that's icy and flaky and good at the same time? Icy is never an adjective you want handy when it comes to ice cream or gelato (in fact, it is the veritable death knell for most frozen concoctions). Snow ice is cool but not brain-freeze frosty, and sweet enough to be satisfying without the cloying sugary-ness of the "frozen cotton candy" it has been compared to. To steal from the Philly cream cheese commercial, it's probably what angels would eat for dessert.

The makers of snow ice even get a leg up on the flavor stakes—snow ice, or xue hua bing, is made from a base of frozen flavored milk or juice (mocha, green tea, peanut butter, white peach, longan, mango, sour plum, etc.) instead of plain ol' frozen water. The vendor grabs a block, feeds it through a snow ice machine, and you gaze spellbound as the flakes of icy goodness drift into your bowl—like watching the first, magical snowfall of the year, or, since this is autumn, russet leaves gliding to the ground.

Of course, it would be unusually cruel for me to leave you without a source after having gone on and on about how wondrous this stuff is. So here it is: Snow Miracle at Oakridge Mall in San Jose, California, has the good stuff. I'm only in the Bay Area for a bit, so I'm counting on fellow serious eaters: Where else can we find real shaved ice?

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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