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A history of shave ice in Hawaii

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    A shave ice with strawberry, vanilla and banana syrups is served at Kailua General Store.


    President Barack Obama has championed the sweet treat since his first visit home as president-elect.


    Kilen Iona pours two flavors atop a shave ice bowl at Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa.


    Dozens of flavored syrups stand at the ready at Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa. Hawaii’s shave Ice tradition began in the early 1900s when Japanese immigrants started selling kakigori, sweetened shaved ice, to plantation workers.


    Steven Parker, top, shaves ice for a cone at Kailua General Store.

Only an academic could complicate a cup of shave ice.

Shave ice is the sweet staple of a sunny day and the steady companion of an island childhood. It was certainly that way for Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, 34, who was born and raised in Kailua.

Mamoru and Helen Matsumoto established their business, initially a grocery store, in 1951, and then began offering shave ice with homemade syrups. Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, now in Hale‘iwa Store Lots, marks its 65th anniversary Saturday with 65-cent, single-flavor shave ice, from 9 a.m. to noon, and $6.50 anniversary T-shirts while supplies last. DJs will spin tunes from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to entertain the crowd.

Hobart left Hawaii and became a scholar. She is one of nine students who have earned doctorate degrees from New York University in food studies since the program began 20 years ago.

Dissertations have explored the cultural and historical importance of subjects like bourbon, bottled water and the masculinity of cooking. For Hobart the focus was ice in Hawaii.

Her quest started with a simple desire to better understand the history of her home state. But as she sifted through old trade agreements between the United States and what was then the independent territory of Hawaii, she noticed reference after reference to ice.

“I couldn’t quite imagine what would have compelled the U.S. to protect a commodity like ice,” Hobart said. Her dissertation showed that ice was an essential element in the colonization of Hawaii, signifying status and offering comfort to settlers who yearned for chilled drinks and ice cream.

Shave ice is something of a side note. It came to Hawaii by way of sugar plantation laborers from Okinawa and other parts of Japan, where eating kaki- gori — the Japanese term for sweetened shaved ice — dates to the royal families of the Heian period.

Japanese immigrants opened small stores to serve plantation workers in the early 1900s, some of which sold shave ice. By the 1950s shave ice was sold regularly at many Japanese-owned mom-and-pops such as M. Matsumoto Grocery Store on the North Shore. Now operating as Matsumoto Shave Ice, the place continues to be so popular that waits can stretch past a half-hour.

Shave ice is iconic enough that images of President Barack Obama eating the dessert regularly show up in news coverage during his winter vacations in Hawaii.

The president’s regular spot is Island Snow, which is more of a shop selling Ray-Bans and $55 board shorts than a palace of the art of shave ice. The electric shaving machine and dozens of bottles of bright syrup are set up in the back of the store, along with a binder that includes a record of Obama’s past orders. He is partial to melon, cherry and lime syrups.

The shop’s Snowbama is a shave ice colored to look like a rainbow in a nod to the president’s work on gay rights.

Hobart spent her childhood frequenting Island Snow. It was mainly a matter of geography. “You go to the shop as close as possible to where you go to the beach,” she said.

Hobart likes her shave ice straight up, without the addition of a scoop of ice cream under the dome of powdery ice. She also takes a pass on sweetened red azuki beans and the topping of sweetened condensed milk called a snowcap.

When she can, she gets one with guava or maybe lychee from a shop run by Steven Parker, a childhood friend. In 2013 Parker opened the Kailua General Store, a five-minute drive from Island Snow. He has lived in Kailua all his life and likes to tell a joke about Obama’s shave ice sojourns: “What do you call it when Obama goes to get a shave ice? A road Barack.”

Parker carries the brightly colored syrups old-timers and children demand, but he prefers the ones he makes himself from limes, lilikoi and ginger, which a friend grows as a hobby.

A good shave ice, Parker says, begins with a machine that has a sharp blade and a block of ice that has been tempered on the counter or in the refrigerator so it has a sheen from melting a bit.

The goal is to create soft flakes that resemble fresh snow and can absorb generous pours of syrup. Pebbles of crushed ice, which make up the snow cones of countless mainland American county fairs, are so hard that the syrup drains to the bottom of the cup.

A skilled shaver must have the patience of a good barista, Parker says, catching the ice as it falls from the blade and gently packing the flakes into a dome firm enough to hold syrup but still soft enough that it will yield easily to a spoon.

“You got to convince it to stick together,” he said.

His large shave ice costs only $3.

“This stuff is so cheap, I don’t feel right charging more,” he said.

For her part, Hobart’s academic work has left her in a conflicted relationship with shave ice.

“If I look at it through one side of the prism, I see the tourist economy and militarization of Hawaii,” she said. “But if I look at another side, I’m a kid in Hawaii walking from the beach to get my shave ice, which is this beautiful, delicious thing.”

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  • “A skilled shaver must have the patience of a good barista” That’s a poor analogy – it takes a LOT more skill to build a proper shave ice. Anyone can pour a cup of coffee.

  • Before they changed to the bowls, when I used to go to Matsumoto’s they would ask me if I would like to buy a carrier cup – so that it doesn’t drip all over. I tell them to look up and take a look at me…I one local, I no need da carrier cup, we when learn from bebe time you spill in da car you going get one slap, so you when learn fo eat ‘um fast befo da ting drip! Das right, you know you one local when you no need da extra cup for catch da drips!

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