Of all the Taiwan Treats I've cataloged, likely none are as distinctly Taiwanese as shaved ice. It's designed with Taiwan's climate in mind, as it's the perfect refreshment for a steamy-scorching subtropical summer. It can feature a variety of toppings that evoke the cuisines and produce of the island, from syrupy mango to starchy-sweet redbean and taro. And perhaps more than any other dessert, it shows off the playfully inventive nature that makes Taiwan so unique.
First, a layer of shaved or crushed ice is taken from a larger cube. Sometimes it is served 'fresh', elsewhere it is soaked in a sweet syrup. This is heaped generously into a vessel, which can range from a modest cup, to a family-sized platter. Next, toppings are heaped on- one topping, two toppings, or maybe nearly a dozen, depending on the creativity of the vendor.
I had read about shaved ice before coming to Taiwan, and I was intrigued to try it. So on our first afternoon in Taipei, Bordeaux and I found a rather modern shop that specialized in it. With stark white walls, glowing red lanterns, and an open hi-tech kitchen, it hardly resembled the simple shaved ice shops described in out guidebook. We later found out that this was a national chain, with locations all over Taiwan. The shaved ice we sampled that afternoon was 'pineapple ice', which sounded tempting, and was described on the menu as being the most traditionally Taiwanese. We took the glass mug out onto the porch, and tasted it. Though the flavor was pleasant, the pineapple flavor was way too sweet, and the syrupy consistency was terrible for the tropical heat of late afternoon. I left the shop feeling more sickened than refreshed. We tried another Meet Fresh a week later, and sampled an entirely different concoction- shaved ice with red bean, taro, and lentils. Though the wholesome starchy flavor was delicious, the ice was again way too syrupy and filling.
Thankfully, I wasn't put off from trying it all together. We searched out a different shaved ice shop, and tried a new dish- pudding shaved ice. As I've written before, pudding in Taiwan is more like a flan, or a caramel custard. The pudding was placed in the bowl first, and it was topped in a mountain of ice and sweetened condensed milk. Against all expectations, this dish was actually less filling and far more refreshing than the two we'd tried before. The non-flavored ice nicely countered the sweetness of the pudding, instead bringing out its rich milkyness.
But perhaps the best bowl we've had came after out lunch at Hsinchu's Eating Temple. In a neon-painted four story tower next to the temple, we ordered a bowl of mango shaved ice. The ice was crushed into a feathery texture, and spooned over a bowl of fresh mango and pineapple. The tropical fruits mixed perfectly with the finely shaved ice, making the ideal tropical treat for a humid tropical afternoon.