Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Close (Ice) Shave In Old Chantaburi Town

My Hawaiian friend gently packs the "ice shave" into a cup before adding the flavored syrup(s). In Thailand it's usually served in a bowl.

Having been active all of her working life, a retired friend of mine in Hawaii wasn't ready to simply live out her years in the somewhat remote small town of her childhood without something to do, so she runs a Shave Ice shop. This not only keeps her in touch with the other folks in town, but also the tourists who stop on their way by her place. The picture up top is of her forming what many of us would call a "snow cone," but it's a different animal altogether.

The kid selling shaved ice in the Old Town part of Chantaburi shaved his ice with a hand-cranked device

As a child I'd never heard of shaved ice, just what we knew then as snow cones; very finely crushed ice in a paper cone with flavored syrups poured on it. It was somewhat dense and heavy. Shaved ice in many other parts of the world is like fluffy snow; airy and very light, and there are many variations. For example, sometimes the flavors and additions (cream, etc.) are frozen and the flavored block of ice is then shaved. Naturally, there are different names for it in different countries and different languages.

A close-up of the Thai hand-cranked shaver

The Japanese brought the treat to Hawaii, where it became known in English as shave ice... except on the island of Hawaii itself. If you're "from big island" you know it as ice shave, and not shave ice.

If you're on Kauai or Molokai and order "ice shave" you're bound to hear "Oh - you from Big Island?" Since I have more family from there than any other island I have long known it as ice shave, but feel free to call it whatever you want.

In Thailand it's usually called nam khaeng sai; a chunk of ice is put into a mechanism that presses it down onto a sharp, spinning blade at the bottom that "shaves" the flattened base of the ice and "snows" into the bowl or whatever below it. If you've done any woodworking you could liken this to using a plane on the ice.

In addition to flavorings there are also a variety of preserved fruits, beans and things to add into the bowl, if you wish. That's what the kid in the photo to the above left is doing for me.

Adding cream to the snowy ice

Call it a snow cone, if you must - but the granular crushed ice treat some are more familiar with is really only a cousin to this light snack.  Call it shave ice, ice shave or nam khaeng sai and you'll be closer to the truth, though. You're likely to see it in many areas of Thailand - city and countryside alike.

Two local boys wait for their afternoon cooler at my friend's shop in Hawaii

There's one small caveat to enjoying this snack in a foreign country: if you have a delicate digestive system that tends to revolt at local bacteria other than those you're used to at home, remember that this ice may not be as pure as what comes out of your freezer and be cautious. Personally I've had shaved ice in Thailand many times and never had a problem with my intestinal track. 

I'd say unless they pull a chunk of ice out of a filthy cooler to make your order, go for it!

My friend holds up his dish of shave ice in Chantaburi

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