A shaved ice dessert piled high with colourful toppings and a set of chopsticks poking out of the side

What are Shaved Ice Desserts? & Some of the Best Ones!

You can find shaved ice desserts (literally desserts made from frozen ice!) all over the world, from Asia to South America to Hawaii. In her latest article, Zsófi gives us a run down of each of her favourites and their origins.

Shaved Ice Desserts

Frozen desserts are not new. We all stock tubs of ice cream in the freezer for a hard day’s night, wander into frozen yoghurt shops on a hot summer day, or get tempted by milkshakes and slushies on a surprisingly sweltering day in the middle of August. In fact, despite its uhm… climate deficiencies, even in the UK, seven litres of ice cream per person are consumed annually. And this does not surprise me one bit – after all, no matter the weather, only a tub of ice cream can give me at least the illusion of joy after an exam I barely just scraped by on, or a workday where the one thing I was tasked with doing just did not… get done.

And I will be the first one to say that while ice cream and milkshakes are absolute classics and, although I very much swear by these, I have found a new passion: shaved ice desserts. These frozen desserts with ice blocks shaved into scoops, bowls, or pyramids and topped with different syrups, fruit, and honey, are well-loved around the world. From the Korean Patbingsu to the Puerto Rican Piragua, you will find plenty of different variations of shaved ice desserts – and all better than the other.

So why are shaved ice desserts SO good? Well, for me, they combine my (perhaps peculiar) love for eating ice (it’s just the perfect texture, nobody can convince me otherwise), and my constant desire to have a sweet treat. However, if you’re like my friends who will judge me endlessly for eating the ice cubes out of my gin tonics and bubble teas (you know who you are), you don’t have to miss out on these fantastic desserts either! You don’t have to wait very long until the ice starts melting, creating an even richer flavour that incorporates all the toppings and ingredients in your bowl.

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to some of the best shaved ice desserts from around the world!

South Korea: Patbingsu

South Korea’s most popular dessert, Patbingsu, roughly translates to red bean ice flakes, which is a very apt name for the wonderful medley of shaved ice and condensed milk, topped with sweet red beans and rice cakes that this dish entails. Served from May to October every year to cool down the masses, Patbingsu dates back to the Joseon Dynasty. 

For lack of refrigeration in an average household, ice in South Korea used to be a luxury available only to a privileged few, which usually meant government officials who, exploiting their access to the royal ice box, would enjoy ice bowls topped with fruit and honey in the summer. As refrigerating appliances became more and more widely accessible in the 20th century, ice became more accessible in many less privileged households around the country, giving freeway to the spread of ice desserts, of which Patbingsu gained the most renown.

At its genesis, Bingsu was used to refer to a bowl of shaved ice topped with sweet red beans and rice cakes. The addition of the now necessary condensed milk was actually due to the Korean War in which there was an influx of US soldiers into the country who brought… condensed milk with them for some reason. In any case, this American import became an integral part of the dessert as we know it today, making it a richer and sweeter dish which proved a fertile basis for the inspired addition of many other toppings such as different kinds of jelly, fruit, syrups, and even ice cream on top of the shaved ice and condensed milk mixture. 

Nowadays, you can even find varieties like matcha bingsu and strawberry bingsu – and much like Pokémon, I’ve gotta have them all!

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India: Gola

You can call it gola, chuski, or barf ka gola, this shaved ice dessert will sure tempt you in the heat Mumbai’s streets emanate. Walking through the most populous city in India where the average temperature in the summer is 30 degrees, you will find a wooden cart on most street corners pushed by the famous golawalas, or gola vendors, ready to serve any sweaty customer in just a couple of minutes. Their cure for the heat: an ice cone/popsicle-style ice dessert.

Gola is a shaved ice dessert made with a hand-crank machine, on which the ice is shaved. Once it is the perfect texture, the ice is compressed into a cup, soaked with some fruit syrup, and stabbed with a stick to create the feel of a popsicle. Golas come in many fruit flavours such as orange or lemon and the result is a colourful, cooling treat, easy to enjoy on the go. One thing though, be careful! Golas are often a messy eating experience, which although only adds to the fun, it should really discourage you from wearing any white clothing on your gola-eating days.

Puerto Rico: Piragua 

Similarly to gola, but from the opposite side of the world, piragua is another shaved ice dessert sold by street vendors on the street, this time by pragüeros on the wonderful island of Puerto Rico. Their small colourful pushcarts serve shaved ice desserts shaped into the form of pyramids, placed in a cup, and drenched in fruit syrup. In fact, the very dessert is named after its curious shape, combining the Spanish words for pyramid ‘pirámide’ and water ‘agua’.

This joy-bringing sweet treat, however, has a dark history. Its origins can be traced back to the African traditions of making ice brought to the island by enslaved peoples. These traditions then mixed with the ingredients readily available at the island to create the flavours popular today which can vary from the classic strawberry to the more exotic pineapple or coconut. Piragua has since become a national symbol, a real taste of Puerto Rico.

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The Philippines: Halo-halo

If you’ve followed me for a little while now, you will have noticed I have not stopped talking about the Filipino dish of Halo-halo. I had it for the first time a few weeks ago in a Filipino dessert place in the heart of London, and I am still very much thinking about it. This dessert is served in a tall glass to really showcase all of its various layers. It will always feature shaved ice (to be expected), with some fresh fruit like jackfruit, a layer of jelly, sweet red beans, coconut paste or coconut flakes, something crunchy on top like rice cakes or cereal, and finally topped with a scoop of ube or purple yam ice cream.

While all of these ingredients come nicely separated and beautifully presented in the glass, once you’re done admiring and photographing them, you should halo halo …. mix mix. This is a very important unskippable step – unless you would like to have a spoonful of only jelly followed by a spoon full of only jackfruit.

While the name of this famous dessert was inspired by the indispensable action of mixing before eating, it also alludes to another character of the halo-halo: its diverse history that is rooted in many foreign influences. Mixing the influences from the Japanese shaved ice dessert, kakigori with the flavours of their former occupier, Spain’s leche flan, all made possible by the American brainchild of the Manila Insular Ice Plant. A real mix of cultures to create the shaved ice dessert now known all over the world.

Hawaii: Shave Ice

Perhaps the best-known out of this list, Hawaii’s Shave Ice is a soft and fluffy ice dessert topped with fruit-based syrup. As amazing as this sounds, for Shave Ice you need to be prepared – well, at least with a spoon and a straw. You start with a spoon, but, as the ice is so thinly and carefully shaved, it starts melting quickly. Once you’ve eaten all you can with your dignity still intact and your shirt still clean, you will have to switch to the straw to finish up your dessert. A real two-in-one.

Hawaiian fruit flavours are also quite special; however, some are only available in Hawaii (so who wants to get tickets?). There, you can top your Shave Ice with lychee, passionfruit, pickled mango, and even wet lemon peel. Once you’ve picked your syrup, you can even go a bit crazy and add more toppings if you’d like, such as fruit, sweet red beans, or an extra scoop of ice cream.