The History of This: Snow Cones

by Steven Arbuckle

Between the years 794 and 1185, Japan went through what is known as the Heian period. The Samurai social class came to the fore, and Taoism and Buddhism made major inroads into Japanese culture. It was during this time period that ice was brought down from the mountains in the winter to be stored in caves. It was a luxury, enjoyed mostly by the royal court, and some enterprising genius found that it was possible to shave tiny bits off the blocks, fine enough that they would absorb flavors that were poured over them.

What we know as modern shaved ice is said to have been developed in Yokohama in 1869, and swelled in popularity until it was common to find it sold through Japan in the 1920s. In the mid-1800s it was illegal to leave Japan as a laborer — it was feared that allowing workers to emigrate might lead to others viewing Japanese solely as hired hands in foreign countries. But as political ties with Hawaii strengthened, the ban was lifted, and in 1885, the first 153 Japanese immigrated to the islands to work on pineapple and sugar cane plantations. When Hawaii’s domination of the sugar industry began to wane, and immigrant families moved off the plantations and into the rest of the culture, they brought the tasty frozen delicacy with them.

As the treat became more Hawaiian, it became tradition that the pile of ice would be flavored with multiple syrups flavored with mango, lychee, kiwi, and other local fruits, with some vanilla ice cream or adzuki paste (a sweetened version of the adzuki bean common to Asian sweets) at the bottom of the cone or cup. A “snow cap” of sweetened, condensed milk made be poured onto the top to create what is called “Japanese style shave ice”.

On the mainland, in the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution brought with it ice houses, and it was not unusual for ice to be made in New York, and carted in a huge slab as far away as Florida. These giant blocks would roll through Baltimore, where children would shadow the carts and ask for a tiny shaving of ice. This happened regularly enough that soon mothers would whip up some egg custard to add to the ice as flavoring, and the “snowball” was born.

As the economic downturn of the Great Depression turned into the material scarcity of World War II, the world outside of Baltimore took notice. Since selling them was a cheap business to be in, and because they were cheap to buy — and made the summer heat more bearable — their popularity soared and spread across the country.

The rest of the world has caught on too. “To scrape” in Spanish is “raspar”, so you might ask for a raspado in Mexico or Nicaragua, a raspadinha in Brazil, or a raspadilla in Peru. Korea has the patbingsu, while in Thailand you may enjoy a nam khaeng sai. In Pakistan, the local version is called baraf ka gola, what Indians call a gola barf. As you might suspect, flavors vary wildly in these different locations, but they are almost always fruit-based, and often feature some sort of sweetened dairy or ice cream component.

In modern America, it’s not unusual to find variations of this treat under many different names: slightly different from Baltimore’s snowball, New Orleans calls it a sno-ball, and it lives on commercially at fast food joints and convenience stores as the Icee, the Slurpee, the Slushie, and the Slush Puppy. Here’s hoping that the summer is hot enough that we get the opportunity to try them all…