People rush back and forth behind the window, calling out orders as they move in seemingly synchronized motion. Flavors are poured, and ice-filled cups change hands. A line of customers stretches from the bright-turquoise food truck, braving the heat as they wait, mostly patiently, for their chilly treats.
The familiar whir of machinery and splash of colorful syrups could cause a casual observer to leap to conclusions. But don’t be fooled — these are no snow cones.
“Shave ice” (shave, not shaved) is a coveted Hawaiian dessert. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, the icy delicacy is renowned for its exotic flavors and tropical feel. With so many poor imitations out there, the question naturally arises: What makes a perfect shave ice?
Sub-par shave ice is often crunchy, and overly sweet syrup can create a cough-syrupy taste. Shave ice quality is often based on the fineness of the ice, which should resemble snow more than actual crushed ice. Any successful shave ice incorporates tropical flavors as well. Mouthwatering ones such as coconut, mango, lilikoi (passion fruit) and lychee are among the most popular. Li hing mui powder, a sweet-and-sour combination originally from China, as well as sweetened condensed milk, traditionally garnish a well-crafted shave ice.
In the islands, this optimum degree of deliciousness is known as “broke da mouth” — a taste so exceptional, it figuratively breaks your mouth. Hawaii’s myriad shave ice vendors and flavor combinations have its residents and visitors engaged in an ongoing quest for the perfect shave ice, one that is truly “broke da mouth.”
One shave ice truck, however, is the talk of the islands.
Original Big Island Shave Ice Co., run by Reggie and Kim Ignacio, is a new Kawaihae business that is steeped in local tradition. Reggie Ignacio has 40 years of shave ice experience, dating to his childhood. His mother, Lorraine Berdon Kaono, started the family business in 1957, using a mobile shave ice shop to travel between all of the plantation camps from North Hilo to Kohala. After about 15 years, she shifted her business to Spencer and Kahaluu beach parks, located on the west side of the island. After her retirement in 1997, no one in the family wanted to take over the business.
“Actually, all of her techniques and recipes kind of went on the shelf,” explains Ignacio, who restarted the family business in 2014.
Because of this interruption, an entire generation of shave ice enthusiasts had never tasted what the Ignacio family has to offer. “We knew what we had in our family, but no one else was really doing it as a business,” he said. “That’s why it’s making such a buzz.”
With current pop favorites playing in the background, Ignacio demonstrates the creation of the perfect shave ice. “It starts with the ice itself. Then, the machine.” His is calibrated to produce ice with an incredibly fine texture.
Ignacio places a block of ice inside the machine, which has adjustable gears that simultaneously spin and put pressure on the ice to create the ideal shave. Shave ice is built in levels, sometimes featuring an ice cream foundation. He watches closely as snowy ice falls into an iconic flower-shaped shave ice cup, where he compresses and sculpts it by hand.
“Because it’s handcrafted, we cannot produce it really fast like some other places. . . . That’s what separates us. They can probably put it out faster than us, but we’re more about quality.” Achieving the correct compaction of the ice is a skill that he says takes about a year to refine. Ignacio rotates the cup as he systematically pats down the ice, creating the ideal spherical shape and degree of compression. He then aerates the ice by poking small holes in it with a metal rod, which later allows the syrup to filter through the ice.
Next he adds naturally flavored syrups to the frozen concoction, with the amount of syrup adjusted to account for the outdoor temperature. Each syrup is homemade, with natural fruit and less sugar than most. “I can make my syrup just as sweet with a quarter of a cup of sugar as other places make with a full cup of sugar,” Ignacio promises. This combination allows for brighter flavors that are also healthier, he says. “There’s really a science behind it. Traditional flavoring is just the ones that you can find anywhere else. The natural flavor line is a whole different ballgame.”
Science may create the ultimate shave ice, but it’s the artistic components that truly elevate it. The Halo Halo flavor is a prime example. Anthony Bourdain once described the classic Philippine dessert Halo Halo as “oddly beautiful.” The shave ice version is even more so, with layer after layer of surprises. Initially developed for the Philippine community, the gourmet shave ice is gaining popularity with tourists as well.
Halo Halo translates to “mix mix,” and the shave ice iteration starts with adzuki beans, which form a nutty and earthy foundation below a special milk-based blend of shave ice topped with purple sweet potato ice cream, mochi, boba and lychee gels and fresh cantaloupe shavings. The boba and lychee gels burst open when you bite into them, melting into the shave ice and creating a fusion of flavors.
“It’s a kicked-up shave ice,” Ignacio said. “Even locals get blown away.”
Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. does not shy away from a challenge and routinely turns to customer suggestions to drive experimentation. Other popular flavors include a cooling green tea, an energizing coffee, a chocolaty Almond Joy and a root beer float shave ice. A Chantilly cake version of shave ice, composed of chocolate and a rich, creamy frosting, is incredibly popular with locals.
Its willingness to test the boundaries of shave ice separates Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. from its competitors. Customers are prepared to wait in long lines in the baking sun for the chance to cool off with their favorite flavors. “They’ll know what they want, and then they’ll see other people with their orders and will get really confused,” Ignacio says. This kind of confusion is what Big Island is striving for — the satisfaction that comes from seeing its customers’ old favorites continually superseded by new ones.
So, what truly makes a “broke da mouth” shave ice? For Ignacio, it all comes back to family.
“The techniques,” he replies with conviction. “It’s recipes and techniques, passed down to me from my mom.” The Ignacios’ love of family is infectious and reaches far beyond the confines of their truck. Customers’ families are drawn closer as well, bonding as they shovel Technicolor shave ice into their mouths before it melts in Hawaii’s sweltering heat.
Virtue is a Hawaii-based freelance writer and student at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
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The Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. food truck operates primarily in Kawaihae. Hours of operation are 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1:30-5:30 p.m. Sunday. An average shave ice costs between $4 and $5. Special flavors such as the Halo Halo, Kona Coffee and Trini-Chantilly cost between $5 and $6.