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If Hawai’i had a state treat, we’d bet it’d be Hawaiian shave ice. Like fish tacos are to San Diego and craft coffee to Portland, shave ice is a food icon in Hawai’i.
Synonymous with sunny beach days set to a soundtrack of plucky Jawaiian beats or drives to the North Shore where you stick your hand out of the car window and wiggle your fingers around the swirly trade winds, shave ice is 100% Hawaiian.
The Origin Of Hawaiian Shave Ice
The technicolor frozen sweet treat is the queen of Instagram photos taken in Hawai’i, but its popularity can be traced back way before social media to the islands’ sugar and pineapple production days.
Japanese immigrants made their way to the islands to work in the plantation fields and brought with them their tradition of eating kakigi – a Japanese dessert known today as shave ice.
Shaved Ice Versus Versus Shave Ice
Before we go any further, let’s talk semantics for a second. Some parts of the country call the sweet treat of shaved ice saturated with a variety of flavored syrups a snow cone. Others call it a snowball in others.
But, let’s be clear: Hawaiian shave ice (no “d” by the way) is a creature all its own. And that difference comes down to the texture of the ice. A defining Hawaiian shave ice feature is fine, powdery flakes of ice that dissolve instantly on your tongue.
And the syrup flavors beloved in the Hawaiian islands, like guava, passion fruit (Liliko’i) and li hing mui (a salty-tangy plum). For a legit Hawaiian shave ice experience, be on the lookout for vendors cranking out super fine ice, homemade syrups when possible and array of add-ins and toppings – more on that below.
How To Order Hawaiian Shave Ice
Now that you know what to look for in good shave ice, here’s how to order the perfect cup. Start with a scoop of ice cream in the bottom – we’re partial to macadamia nut of haupia (coconut pudding) – and then top with flavorings of your choice.
If you want to go all in, top it with a “snow cap” of creamy, condensed milk. And if you’re really looking to splurge, get a scoop of red azuki beans or mochi pieces as garnish.
Where To Get The Best Hawaiian Shave Ice
From traditional to artisanal and from Big Island to Honolulu, here are our picks for the best shave ice across the state of Hawai’i.
Note: these spots attract long lines most weekend afternoons; however, whether you’re a shave ice novice or connoisseur, these shops are well worth the wait.
Best Shave Ice On Oahu: Uncle Clay’s
While most visitors flock to Matsumoto’s and Island Snow on the North Shore, Uncle Clay’s offers a Hawaiian shave ice fix just east of Waikiki (and a perfect stop before or after hiking Makapu’u lighthouse, by the way).
Fans of the shop love that everything is homemade: as in, locally sourced fruits are chopped, pureed, and mixed into homemade syrups and toppings.
Customers and founder “Uncle Clay” aka Clayton alike agree that the Tropical Delight – a mix of guava, pineapple and Liliko’i – shines, as does the Classic Rainbow flavor combo of strawberry, mango, and pineapple. Both come with vanilla ice cream for added richness.
Best Shave Ice On Maui: Ululani’s Shave Ice
Locals and visitors alike consistently rank Ululani’s at the top of their list and can choose from their Kihei, Lahaina, and Kahului locations to satisfy shave ice cravings.
In particular, customers rave about Ululani’s Haleakalā and Coconut Lovers combos. The Haleakalā, named after the island’s dormant volcano (and an amazing place to watch sunrise FYI) is an elegant pairing of coconut syrup topped with a sweet condensed milk mixture.
As you’d imagine, the Coconut Lovers goes all in on coconut by pairing coconut syrup, a berry and coconut flavor called “Tiger’s Blood” and Piña Colada flavors with an option to add toasted coconut flakes to finish. If coconut isn’t your thing, other favorites like li hing (tangy plum), mango, and liliko’i (passionfruit) can be ordered a la carte.
Best Shave Ice On Kaua’i: Shave Ice Tege Tege
Spot this cash-only shave ice truck parked roadside in the charming town of Kapa’a as you drive up north to Hanalei Bay. Tege Tege uses organic, local, seasonal fruits as they are available and house made syrups.
The flavors are amazing but the texture of the shave ice is what put Tege Tege on our list. The flaky, delicate ice is hand cranked by a Hatsuyuki ice machine flown in from Japan and topped with pieces of fruit and a drizzle of condensed milk. Flavors rotate regularly and range from green tea or hibiscus to blackberry, and more.
Like many businesses in Hawai’i, Tege Tege is a small, family-run operation, so when the owners go home to Japan on holiday, they close up shop. That said, count on Tege Tege to be open most days during the summer months. Even then, the best thing to do is to check their Instagram page for their weekly hours.
Best Shave Ice On Island of Hawai’i: Original Big Island Shave Ice
Original Big Island Shave Ice is a family-owned, roving shave ice truck that can be found from Hilo to Waikoloa. An extensive menu of traditional and more contemporary flavors like strawberry, cherry and orange creamsicle and homemade natural fruit flavors like guava and pineapple offer a plethora of combinations.
Their menu of decadent specialties is also impressive — fans can’t get enough of the Halo Halo, a Filipino-inspired dessert made with ube (purple sweet potato) ice cream, boba, and azuki beans. It’s also a nod to another one of the many cultural influences that have shaped the state’s diverse palate.
Do you have any other must-try shave ice spots to add to the list when you travel to Hawai’i? Let us know in the comments below!
More Hawai’i Travel Tips
- The Immersive Food Experiences For Your Next Trip To Hawai’i
- The Local Food Terms You Need To Know Before You Travel To Hawai’i
- Not Sure Which Hawaiian Island To Visit? Let Your Food Personality Lead You!
- The Best Big Island Beaches To Visit On Your Next Trip
Have Us Plan Your Hawai’i Trip
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Hawaiian Diacritical Marks: In an effort to be accurate and respectful of the Hawaiian language, we use diacritical marks in our articles on the region. For more about which marks are used in the language and how to find proper spelling, refer to this Hawai’i Magazine article.