Hawaiian company is the big kahuna of the shave ice craze

Tourists and islanders alike flock to the Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. food truck in Kawaihae, Hawaii, to taste one of its mouthwatering masterpieces. Alicia Greenwell, Original Big Island Shave Ice Co.

By JORDAN VIRTUE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 8, 2016

“Shave ice” (that’s 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?

Subpar 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 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 shave ice vendors and flavor combinations have its residents and visitors engaged in an ongoing quest for the perfect version.

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 business that is steeped in local tradition in Kawaihae, a community on the west side of the island of Hawaii. Reggie has 40 years of shave ice experience, dating to his childhood. His mother, Lorraine Berdon Kaono, started the family business in 1957. After her retirement in 1997, no one in the family took over the business.

“Actually, all of her techniques and recipes kind of went on the shelf,” explains Ignacio, who restarted the 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 music 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 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 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 took about a year to refine. Ignacio rotates the cup as he systematically pats down the ice, creating the ideal spherical shape. 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 syrups to the frozen concoction. Each 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. His 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 might create the ultimate shave ice, but it’s the artistic components that elevate it. The Halo Halo flavor is a prime example, 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 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. routinely turns to customer suggestions to drive experimentation. Other popular flavors include green tea, Kona coffee, a chocolaty Almond Joy and root beer float. A Chantilly cake version of shave ice, composed of chocolate and a rich, creamy frosting, is incredibly popular with locals. An average shave ice goes from $4-$5.

So, what truly makes a “broke da mouth” shave ice? For Ignacio, it 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.

Shave ice from Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. in Kawaihae, Hawaii.Photo by Alicia Greenwell, Original Big Island Shave Ice Co.

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