Malaysian Shaved Ice: The "Snow-Like" Dessert

Also called Ice Kachang, this popular Malay street treat harks back to the time when icecreams were made and had a more ‘aristocratic’ touch.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Sriracha. 

Shaved ice is all about slush here. Or more famously called the gola – a quintessential beach indulgence where blocks of ice are shaven into thin flakes of snow, remodelled into a ball or an ice-cream cone (upside down of course) and then doused with syrup of one’s liking. This made-to-mood creation has been a beach staple for a very long time and often reminds one of the times when icecream was all about ice soaked in juice or juice water, iced. For food historians and writers however, these icy treats are also a reminder of the days when ice was a fancy product, brought down from the upper Himalayas to the Mughal court, stored in specially designed cool rooms and only handled by the best in the business of ice shaving and dessert making. History is replete with incidences where these ice-used desserts were part of the piece de resistance of any diplomatic royal table. In fact, such was the fascination with these naturally occurring blocks of water that even the Mughals paid a hefty sum to get them down from the foot of Himalayas (same place where the water came) to their forts in Agra and then Delhi, where a team of specially trained people would hand shave it into these different blocks on which fruits and sweets would be served and devoured. In fact, guides at Fatehpur Sikri often point to an underground was brought down from the great Himalayas and then hand shaved or shaped as part of fascinating cold delicacies that made summers, tolerable. Such was the tedious process that it needed not just an elaborate logistics but also an army of trained hands to work with this extremely hard-to-hold-onto ingredient. Little wonder that the shaved iced and the block-iced treats remained the privy of the powers to be for a very long, long time. The story incidentally isn’t here in India but elsewhere in the world, where not pepper or saffron but ice was often the most expensive product come summers. In fact, history has it that Romans often employed the strongest of war prisoners to get them ice from far off locations with the fastest party getting an extra slab of meat and more wine as reward.

But where did the idea of using naturally frozen come into being? While history doesn’t point out to a particular dynasty or civilisation of popularising it, ice has been in use both as means to cool down rising temperature as well as part of creating cool drinks since ancient times. Powerful dynasties like the Romans, Aztecs and even the Egyptians were known to be masters of using the ice to create fascinating pieces of indulgences. As a matter of fact, most palace architectures were known to master the design of the ice room by building a sort of underground room that would keep the ice from melting before the next supply comes in. In India, these underground rooms were often surrounded with wells or baoli.  Such was the rare commodity ice was the wasting it could bring in punishment – even royals had to bear such rules as they could ask for a dessert that had ice only when an occasion presented, and not just the high heat. Could that the reason the concept of shaved ice came to being? Not really, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sriracha), who went exploring the shaven iced dessert across the Orient to understand the love for ice. Incidentally, the idea of shaven ice came from Japan, says the Oriental cuisine specialist, “where it was part of the sushi making skills. In fact, food lore has it that some of the best sushi hands were once trained to shave ice in a way that it resembled snow on which an array of delicious treats was served that ranged from fruits to desserts to even these little globes of juices that were partly solidified to look like an ice ball.  Known as Kakigori, the dessert was first mentioned in the Pillow Book, Makura no Soshi written by Sei Shonagon, who was one of the court ladies of Empress Consort Teishi, a royal consort of Emperor Ichijo. A detailed account of the Heian-era court life, the book describes how Kakigori was made by scraping ice into a metal bowl and adding Kudzu, an arrowroot vine, onto it. This was then tipped with hydrangeas, ivy, honey and/or crushed plums. In fact, much of Kakigori’s royal existence was as a part seasonal, part on a whim dessert that could take in even the most radical sounding combination. This continued till Kahe Nakagawa, a renowned food merchant, transformed it by bringing in the ‘Hakodate Ice’. Sturdier than the ice that came before that, it helped establish the first Kakigori shop to open in Bashamichi in Yokohama in 1872 around the Meji period. The second change came during the Showa period when the ice shaving machine was created thus stopping the era of hand-shaving.”

While the changes brought the once for royals only dessert to the commoner, it also meant that the dessert could move out especially with Japanese people migrating in the search of a better life, albeit with a  few changes like, says Chef Seth, “the toppings, fruits and even the use of flavours were changed to suit the palate of the adopted country. In Korea, it became Patbingsoo and in Philippine’s Halo-Halo. What didn’t was the composition as shaved ice desserts remained a layered dessert where the first was the ice flakes followed by toppings of fruits, beans and other treats followed with syrups. That till the time the popularity of the dessert led to the creation of Ice Kachang or as Chef Seth would call, Malaysian Ice – a beautiful dessert served at Sriracha made with flakes of ice, scoops of in-season fruits with a mild syrup poured on the top that does the dual work of adding contrast to the fruit and giving it that brilliant glaze which would protect them from oxidation. Result, you could relish the treat much like an ice lolly.

Today a famous street food in Malaysia, the first experience of Malaysian Ice may take some adjustment. The first being, it is not anything like you may have experienced and a definitive far cry from ice lolly or the Mexican Paletas. Much like the original that Chef Seth had back during his trip to Malaysia, is version too has these fine flakes of ice on which the fruits are loaded with syrup. So you have the sweetness of the fruits, the tartness of the syrup and then the sudden crunch of the ice that instantly cools the mouth while slowly making you realise that different flavours of the fruits and syrup used. There are times when to break the monotony, says the culinary specialist, “we do add a few spoons of chia that adds to the mouthfeel.”

The original Ice Kachang however, recalls Chef Seth, “does need an acquired palate. Unlike his easy on the palate version, the Malay version comes with the following toppings - soft-cooked red beans, creamed corn, attap chee (palm seeds), cendol (green rice-flour ‘worms’), and grass jelly along with the serving of the fruits. This fascinating to look at concoction, adds the culinary director, “while makes it the most attractive dish on offer in the street, it does really ace on texture. A single bite and you would get all – that typical sting of shaved ice, chewiness of palm seeds, the powdery-creaminess of beans and the springy-bite of cendol. Things that make it quite an interesting indulgence and at times a favourite too.”

But most importantly, says Chef Seth, “it does take you back in time when ice wasn’t just a mean to keep this cool, it was an ingredient too – well played with.”