Guide

2018/8/10

The Light and Fluffy Evolution of Shaved Ice

This is the last summer of the Heisei era, which began in 1989 and is set to end on May 1 next year, when Emperor Akihito leaves the throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Much has changed in the 30 years since this era began. One of those things is that summer hallmark, kakigōri, or shaved ice.

Shaved ice has been around for a surprisingly long time, with the oldest mention of the chilly treat dating back to the Heian period (794–1185). The writer Sei Shōnagon mentions cut or shaved ice in her famous essay collection Makura no sōshi (trans. The Pillow Book), written in the tenth century.

Owing to the fact that ice-making technology was not introduced into Japan until the twentieth century, shaved ice has been a treasured luxury for much of the 1,000 or more years of its history to date. But now that it is within reach of everyone, it is undergoing dramatic evolution, particularly over the course of the last three decades.

Heisei Shaved Ice: A Look Back

Fads for various sweets sweep Japan every few years or so. Some historical examples of this phenomenon are tiramisu in 1990, nata de coco in 1993, macarons in 2004, and dessert pancakes in 2011.

Whereas these fads tend to fade in the very years in which they emerged, shaved ice retains its popularity to this day as it evolves from year to year.

There is, of course, the shaved ice that the street vendors sell from carts and booths at festivals. This cheap treat is perennially popular with children, who wolf it down with straws, the ends of which are cut into spoon shapes just for that purpose. And it’s practically guaranteed that they don’t need many mouthfuls before grimacing with an ice cream headache.

A small child eating shaved ice with a straw spoon.

Strawberry, blue Hawaii, and lemon are the standard flavors of the syrup that gets poured over the ice chips to make this traditional shaved ice, though sometimes sugar water is used instead.

Light and Fluffy

In 2011, there was a revolution in this basic formula of syrup and ice.

Stores specializing in shaved ice began popping up seemingly everywhere, upending the traditional simple concept with a fuwa-fuwa (light and fluffy) treat made with naturally occurring ice. These desserts, piled high on a dish, bring to mind cotton candy more than the shaved ice remembered from neighborhood festivals.

Fuwa-fuwa (light and fluffy) shaved ice.

Shaved ice soon came to appear frequently in print media and on TV. This media exposure quickly raised the public profile of the newly booming fuwa-fuwa type. The fad that resulted quickly gained steam, with some shaved ice specialty stores distributing tickets before they opened for business each day, and people having to wait hours in some cases to get what they wanted.

Taiwanese Shaved Ice Hits Japan

An additional driver of the Japanese shaved ice fad was the arrival of that surprise stroke from overseas, Taiwanese shaved ice.

It began around 2015, when a number of shaved ice specialty outlets based in Taiwan opened branches in Tokyo.

Taiwanese-style shaved ice is made from flavored ice blocks, with various flavors, ranging from fruit to coffee and teas, frozen into the ice itself as it is made. This flavored ice is then shaved to create treats surpassing even Japan’s fuwa-fuwa form for softness and flavor. Being unlike anything known in Japan up to then, Taiwanese shaved ice—mango-flavored ice with fresh mango topping being the most popular—rapidly grew into a force to be reckoned with in the frozen dessert scene, first in Tokyo and before long, all over the country.

Taiwanese-style mango shaved ice.

The Next New Thing: Torched Shaved Ice

The hit of 2018 is called, simply, Torched Shaved Ice. Ice melts if it gets warm. Everyone knows that. And yet, this dish is just what it’s called. So which is it, warm or cold?

Torched Shaved Ice, curious name and all, was created at a store called Intersect by Lexus in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.

Ice from Karuizawa, frozen gradually in the natural cold of the area, gives the concoction its distinctive light and fluffy texture. Some even claim that the high purity of the ice makes it less likely to cause ice-cream headaches.

An espuma, a foam like a meringue, infused with the juice of 100-year apples (sweet fruit grown on the oldest trees) is applied liberally to coat the ice. The mixture is then baked with a gas torch.

Raising the density of the espuma foam, with its delicately balanced mixture of apple juice, sugar, and egg whites, allows just its surface to be baked while keeping the ice within cold. Apple slices concealed in the heart of the dessert bring further enjoyment with the change of textures.

You can enjoy the newest thing in shaved ice, with warmth and cold side by side, in the last summer of the Heisei era. It retails for ¥1,000, including tax. Enjoy.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on July 27, 2018. Translated by Nippon.com.)

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