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Food Tales

Shave Ice: Baobing, Patbingsu, Ais Kacang and Halo-halo



Once upon a time, a food-obsessed daughter introduced her dad to shave ice in a snow dessert cafe called Ho Bing.

Patbingsu at Ho Bing Snow Dessert Cafe
Patbingsu at Ho Bing Snow Dessert Cafe

The father became obsessed with patbingsu, the Korean shave ice, and waited excitedly for Ho Bing to open a branch at a mall about fifteen minutes from home. Month after month, father and daughter waited for the Ho Bing branch to open. It never did. Eventually, its slot was taken over by another food establishment.

The father is, of course, my husband, Speedy. The food-obsessed daughter is Alex. I told Speedy never mind about Ho Bing. When we go to Taiwan, I said, you can have all the shave ice you can digest. And he was a bit surprised. Is Korean presence in Taiwan so strong that there’s patbingsu everywhere? I don’t know about the strength of Korean presence in Taiwan but I know one thing for sure. Shave ice is not exclusively Korean.

Shave ice came from China

Shave ice has been eaten in China since the 7th century AD. From there, it spread to neighboring countries and, eventually, to other parts of the world. Twelve years ago, I had shave ice called baobing at Shilin Market in Taiwan. It was the only food I could tolerate in the heat and humidity. Ten years ago, I had the Malaysian version, ais kacang, at a food court in Singapore. Here at home, we indulge in shave ice in two forms, halo-halo and maiz con hielo, especially during the hot summer months.

Malaysian shave ice, ais kacang, at a food court in Singapore.
Malaysian shave ice, ais kacang, at a food court in Singapore.

In the Philippines where Korean presence is strong, cafes and dessert parlors serving shave ice mushroomed and patbingsu has become very popular with Filipinos. Unlike the coarser ice of the local halo halo and maiz con hielo, patbingsu‘s ice is feathery. There are no pieces of ice to grind between the teeth.

Among Asian variants of shave ice, the only common denominator is ice

As you may have guessed by now, just because all the variants of shave ice trace their roots to China, it doesn’t follow that shave ice in Taiwan is the same as shave ice in Korea. The only thing they all have in common is ice. The sweetener may be condensed milk or fruit-based syrup. The toppings can be anything from fresh to preserved fruits to nuts to cereals. Anything goes.

The texture and appearance of the ice varies.

The secret to light feathery shave ice

Mango shave ice in Tamsui
Mango shave ice in Tamsui

In Tamsui, the mango shave ice was served on a waffle cone and the ice curled like pineapple chunks. I thought they were pineapple chunks until I started eating.

The shape of the shave ice may be for aesthetics (competition is strong so shave ice seller have to be creative) but the feathery texture is true for shave ice all over Taiwan. It wasn’t until a few days later that we discovered the secret to the light feathery ice.

We were going to Shifen and Jiufen, and the meeting place was just outside Ximen Station. We were there early to avoid getting caught in the Wan An air raid drill. To pass the time, we ate. Ice Papa looked good, so, why not?

Mango shave ice at Ice Papa, Taipei
Mango shave ice at Ice Papa, Taipei

We still had time to kill after demolishing the mango shave ice so we stayed awhile. I don’t know how long it took me to notice that I had a good view of the process of making shave ice. I took a video.

So, the secret to the light feathery ice? Unlike the milk drenched crushed ice in Malaysian ais kacang and Filipino halo-halo, in Taiwan, shave ice is shaved frozen milk, not plain ice. That’s why baobing has that fantastic light and creamy mouthfeel.