Shaved ice is not the same as the icy, frozen-solid “snow cones” that you bought from the ice cream truck as a kid. Shaved ice is made by shaving or grating solid blocks of ice into a fluffy, snow-like consistency. The freshly shaved ice is packed down into place – again, like fresh snow – and drizzled with sweet syrups for flavor. The difference between shaved ice and other types of “snow cones” is all in the texture. “Snow cones” have a hard, icy crunch to them while shaved ice delivers a more melt-in-your-mouth softness. The fluffiness of the shaved ice also helps it hang on to the flavored syrups, rather than just allowing them to run straight to the bottom of your cone – as can be the case with “snow cones” – and leave the top flavorless. The key to shaved ice is to start with a large block of ice, as you will get the most consistent shaved ice when you work with a large block, as opposed to trying to shave ice cubes.
What I’ve described here is really the North American difference between shaved ice and “snow cones,” but shaved ice is actually something that is popular all over the world with very different flavors offered, though the shaved ice has a very similar consistency. Some countries favor fruit syrups, others favor dairy toppings, and many pair their shaved ice with other dessert components, like ice cream or red bean.
While I’ve had shaved ice in the mainland US, the best place I’ve had shaved ice were in Hawaii (where it is known simply as “shave ice”), where the syrups feature the flavors of intensely sweet tropical fruits and you can always find a shop that is making their syrups by hand.