You'll see this everywhere: shave ice in Hawaii


This article was adapted for digital from the upcoming Hawaii guidebooks: Oahu, Kauai, Maui & Hawaii, The Big Island, all due to be published in August, 2024. Written by Sarah Etinas, Ryan Ver Berkmoes, Ashley Harrell, Jade Bremner, Savannah Dagupion, Malia Yoshioka, Amy Balfour and Megan Minor Murray.

Not to be confused with a Snow Cone, shave ice (translated from Pidgin) is really simply ice shavings (not crushed ice). It’s a refreshing, summery treat served in a paper cup or bowl with colorful, syrupy toppings and sold at shave ice shops across the islands of Hawaii. You won’t be able to miss it. 

Here’s everything you need to know before you dive into the tasty world of Hawaii’s favorite import.

Is shave ice unique to Hawaii?

That’s an interesting question. An ancient version of the dessert, named kakigōri, originated in Japan. Records show blocks of ice being shaved and served with syrup to Japan’s aristocracy during the summer months. Later, on the islands of Hawaii, Japanese migrant workers used their plantation tools to shave flakes off large blocks of ice, coating them with sugar or fruit juice to help cool down in the hot sun. By the 1950s, shave ice had become a local staple. 

Over the decades, shave ice creations have evolved to include fillings like anko (sweet red bean) paste or ice cream, while new toppings have been added, like condensed milk, which creates a visually pleasing “snow cap.” Extra toppings, such as coconut shavings, chocolate or mochi (sweet rice cake) chunks, also add texture. Flavored syrups range from a traditional fruit-based syrup to ultra-processed flavors like cola or bubblegum.

There’re a few things to know about modern fillings and toppings before you order a shave ice © Sri Maiava / Getty Images

How to order a shave ice like a pro

First things first: it’s shave ice, not shaved ice. If you see a sign that says shaved ice, it’s likely inauthentic. Skip it and find the real deal. 

Once you’re in a shave ice shop, ordering your treat may seem complicated. Most shave ice places will have a sign with clear steps to guide you. On the off chance they don’t, here’s what you’ll do.

Step 1: Select the size of your shave ice. 

Step 2: Pick any fillings, such as anko (sweet red bean paste) or ice cream. 

Step 3: Choose your shave ice flavors. This is where you’ll find the most options and where your shave ice will get its bright colors. You’ll often find fun, tropical flavors, like li hing mui (salty dried plum) and liliko‘i (passionfruit), alongside more familiar flavors like strawberry and cotton candy. 

Step 4: Pick your toppings. These go on top of the shave ice, often including mochi balls and condensed milk snow caps.

If that seems overwhelming, do note: fillings and toppings are optional (and often come at an added cost). You can keep it simple by sticking to steps 1 and 3. 

Now it’s your turn to order a shave ice, which will be served in a cup or bowl with a spoon, and share a communal bench (or pull up a plastic chair outside) and dig in. 

Local tip: Some of the most beloved little shave ice stands are cash-only businesses. Make sure you always have some paper bills on hand. 

Red and Green Shave Ice in Bowl ©Photo by Meredith Narrowe/Getty Images
You might find a Christmas-themed, red-and-green shave ice this holiday season © Photo by Meredith Narrowe / Getty Images

Where to get the best shave ice in Hawaii

The Big Island

Kula Shave Ice: When you’re in Hilo, the craft bowls at Kula Shave Ice stand out. They feature organically grown and locally sourced fruit, organic cane sugar and filtered water for the ice. 

Scandinavian Shave Ice: In Kailua-Kon, the shave ice at Scandanavian is piled up in huge, psychedelic-colored mounds. Get mini mochi on top. 

Original Big Island Shave Ice: Iconic shave ice since 1957, Original Big Island Shave Ice has some two dozen colorful tropical toppings; it’s served at the Hilo outpost of Kai Store. 

Oʻahu

Waiola Shave Ice: Making the same superfine shave ice since 1940, and we’d argue that it’s gotten the formula exactly right. Get your Wailoa Shave Ice doused with 20-plus flavors of syrup and topped by azuki beans, lilikoʻi cream, condensed milk or spicy-sweet li hing mui. There’s an even older location in Ala Moana.

Shimazu Store: This is an insider’s pick for shave ice. Can’t decide on a flavor at Shimazu? Get rainbow, which mixes many.

Island Shave Ice & Creamery: Treat yourself to next-level, naturally fruit-flavored shave ice at this hidden eatery. When you go to Island Shave Ice & Creamery, add a scoop of locally made Roselani ice cream to the center if you want to take things up a notch.

Chef Brandon Baptiste hands shave ice to customer Kauai
Some of the most beloved little shave ice stands are cash-only businesses, so bring notes © Heather Goodman/HTC

Kaua‘i

Uncle’s Shave Ice: In addition to a rainbow of flavor options, Uncle’s in Lihue offers local toppings like haupia (coconut pudding) cream and li hing mui powder.

Wishing Well: Long-standing shave ice spot in Hanalei, Wishing Well has traditional and tropical flavors like hibiscus-lime and guava. Try mac nut ice cream-filled shave ice, topped with organic, fruity syrups of your choice. 

Fresh Shave: Based in Koloa, Fresh Shave is an institution on Kauai that uses fresh, organic ingredients (yes to apple bananas). 

Maui

Ululani’s Shave Ice: Named after the owner, who grew up in Kalihi, Oʻahu, Ululani’s is a local favorite offering 45 flavors, like tamarind, matcha green tea, pickled mango and Thai tea. Our favorite combination is Local Motion, which is mango, li hing mui and pineapple, topped with li hing mui powder.

Tobi’s Shave Ice: Tobi’s shave ice serves its tasty treats in biodegradable cups. You can also grab mixed plates and freshly made ahi poke, which makes it a great stop on the Hana Highway for lunch and a sweet treat.

Bling Bing Maui: When you’re in Kihei, check out Bling Bing, which brings a bit of a twist to traditional Hawaiian shave ice by offering bàobīng. Developed in Taiwan while under Japanese rule, it uses fresh fruit, boba and jellies instead of syrups for flavor. 

 Kids at Local Boy Shave Ice, Kihei, South West Maui
Learn more about the history of Hawaii while tasting your way through its shave ice menus © Greg Elms / Lonely Planet

Want to know more?

If you’re in Maui, head to Puʻunene to tour the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, where exhibits and artifacts reveal what daily life in the plantation camps was like while also providing a glimpse into the multicultural workforce who stayed on to make Maui home. One of the most popular exhibits is “From Saimin to Shave Ice,” where you can see how Japanese immigrants influenced the local cuisine. Follow your visit with a stop at Chef Sheldon Simeon’s Tin Roof, where you can get a kaukau tin (traditional old Hawaiian lunch box) of local comfort food and, of course, make a beeline to the nearest shave ice shop.

Ready to start planning your trip to Hawaii?





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