Japan from the inside out

Shaved ice goes upscale and global

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 20, 2010

ONE DELIGHTFUL SURPRISE when I arrived in Japan was the discovery that kakigori, or shaved ice, is a favorite summertime treat. I grew up eating what we called snowballs in the hot humid summers of Baltimore. The name is different, but the basics are the same: shaved or granulated ice covered with a sweet syrup. The Japanese have variations that include condensed milk, the sweet adzuki bean, and ice cream toppings, but there are seldom more than four or five flavors. Baltimore snowball stands offered a much greater variety, however. My parents often took my sister and me to a stand on the premises of a plant nursery near my mother’s family home that featured more than 40 flavors, including peppermint and spearmint. Liquid marshmallow on top was also available for a few cents extra. My mother was a chocolate aficionado and my father fancied the egg custard, which was similar to vanilla. I liked both of those, as well as grape, which I did find once in Japan. My sister was partial to the sarsaparilla flavor, based on the soft drink common in those days that could be described as hard-core root beer. I don’t know if the stand still exists, but it was in business every summer for at least 30 years.

The Japanese have been treating themselves to kakigori for a very long time. The first recorded mention appears in the Makura no Soshi, or Pillow Book, a collection of the personal observations and writings of Sei Shōnagon, a court lady to the Empress Consort Teishi. The book was finished in 1002.

One of the “Elegant Things” she describes in a section of her book with the same title is a delicacy in which a block of ice was scraped with a blade, with the scrapings placed in a metal container. The ice was then covered with the sap from a local ivy called amazura, which has been used as a sweetener in Japan for about 3,000 years.

The first kakigori shop was opened in Yokohama in 1869. The proprietor must have been one sharp businessman–his shop was also the first in Japan to sell ice cream. The government instituted purity standards for ice in 1878, and the first kakigori machine was patented in this country in 1887 by Murakami Hansaburo. Edward S. Morse wrote of eating kakigori in Japan circa 1880 in his book Japan Day by Day, published in 1917. Morse was an American zoologist who came to Japan in search of coastal brachiopods.

Tracy Schneider at the Al Dente website goes in search of even more shaved ice treats, and in addition to kakigori, she’s found Thai Nam Kang Sai, Korean Bingsoo, Chinese Baobing, Vietnamese Che Bau Mau, Indonesian Es Cendol, Hawaiian Shave Ice, Filipino Halo-halo. and Malaysian ABC Ice Kachang. She’s got a link at her post to another post describing the characteristics of each one. Ms. Schneider is a true devotee–she had nine posts on shaved ice last summer alone.

She also links to this informative article on shaved ice by Julia Moskin in the New York Times’ Dining and Wine section. It’s now haute cuisine! Ms. Moskin’s article presents examples from even more countries, but–this is the Times after all–occasionally spills over into Manhattan gourmet pretentiousness.

There’s also an Amazon link to buy a Hamilton Beach Snowman Ice Shaver for those who want to make it at home. I’ll stick with the manually operated crank-type machine that my wife bought about 20 years ago, which still works fine. Come to think of it, it’s about time to take it down from the cabinet for this summer’s mid-afternoon delights.

The critical factor for the creation of shaved ice in any country seems to be humid summers. I found only one shop that offered shaved ice in the Bay Area of California when I lived there. It was a sideline to their fast food offerings, and they had no idea what they were doing. I never went back a second time.

I saw a TV program in Japan a few years ago in which they flew a kakigori machine and some flavorings to the Sahara and served it to a small tribe of nomads. (Who says Japanese TV isn’t interesting?) None of them cared for it–the sweetness might have been a problem, and it’s not a practical thirst quencher in a place where water is at a premium. They all laughed and puckered their lips as if they had eaten something too tart.

One person commenting on the Al Dente post had this to say:

We called them snow balls, and they were literally shaved from a big block of ice with a shaver that worked a bit like a carpenter’s plane, except that the shavings were caught in the front under a lid. Kids (maybe 12 to 15) operated snowball stands all over the town every summer. The syrups were normally purchased. Back in the 50s, prices started at a nickel.

I could have written the same thing word for word myself!

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2 Responses to “Shaved ice goes upscale and global”

  1. milton said

    Excellent post. Having spent a lot of time in Korea and China (as well as multiple trips to Japan), I’ve often wondered about the origin of kakigori/bingsu/baobing. My original hypothesis was that it was some sort of poor-man’s food invented in the early 20th century to make a small quantity of ice cream last longer. I had no idea it was over 1000 years old. Wow…

  2. camphortree said

    What a surprise! Shaved ice was mentioned as one of elegant things in the Pillow Book! In my high school classic literature class we were supposed to memorize and recite a bunch of famous lines like “香炉峰の雪は、いかならむ。遣愛寺の鐘は枕を欹てて聴き、香炉峰の雪は簾をかかげて看む。。。” out of a textbook. Those phrases were said to be related to the Chinese classic literature that was authored by 白居易 who was inspired from 陶淵明 who… The textbook never showed anything about a cup of shaved ice. No wonder the class made me sleepy.
    I wonder from where merchants harvested ice blocks in the Heian Period. The ice blocks must have been carried by horse men like pony express to the Emperor’s City. If they had been carried by a three wheeled auto, my childhood summers were about the same as the kids who lived 1,000 years ago.

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