I still haven’t had the heart to unfollow Ample Hills and Davey’s on Instagram even though I simultaneously cry and drool whenever I see Ooey Gooey Butter Cake…
But when it’s out of sight it’s out of mind, because Taiwan has its own cult of cold desserts, and I’m a convert if not a true believer.
I was at a friend’s house last week when she served us with small bowls of shaved ice on top of a few taro balls, mung beans, peanuts, red beans, sweet potatoes, and aiyu jelly. We spooned black sugar syrup over it and then filled the bowl half-way with milk.
This is the sort of dish that since I was a little kid I’ve seen my mom eat. It’s also the sort that made me turn up my nose. I remember my mom using our popsicle mold to make red bean or peanut soup popsicles, and I remember never being even a little bit tempted to try one.
To my American tastes, everything about many traditional Taiwanese desserts was all mixed up and weird. Taro, sweet potatoes, beans? These foods should be salty and hot, not sweet and certainly never cold. Desserts should be rich and toothsome, not aqueous and slick. Peanuts should be salty if not honey-roasted/embedded within a candy bar; they should be crunchy unless boiled (in which case they definitely need to be salty). The only Q food is Jell-O, and that should only be eaten if you are in a hospital or a public school cafeteria. Actually, even then you probably shouldn’t eat it.
Assimilating is fun! It’s also a proven coping strategy when you’re a foreigner who
has had strong opinions about dessert. This dish I had at my friend’s house—I’ve since hunted down a vendor near my house so I can eat it all the time.
It’s called cuabing (剉冰). Apparently “cuabing” is a Taiwanese word; in Mandarin it’s called baobing (刨冰; bàobīng). Both literally translate as “shave ice.” It consists of unflavored shaved ice similar to the texture of a snowcone. It’s sweetened with black sugar syrup and is topped with at least a few ingredients such as:
- Red beans (紅豆; hóngdòu)
- Mung beans (綠豆; lǜdòu)
- Grass jelly (仙草; xiāncǎo)
- Aiyu jelly (愛玉; àiyù)
- Konnyaku jelly (蒟蒻; jǔruò)
- Tapioca pearls (珍珠; zhēnzhū)
- Tofu pudding (豆花; dòuhuā)
- Taro balls (芋圓; yùyuán)
- Sweet potatoes (地瓜; dìguā)
- Peanuts (花生; huāshēng)
- Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzi)
- Fruit (水果; shuǐguǒ)
- Milk (牛奶; niúnǎi)
Stands serving cuabing and other traditional cold snacks are very common near street markets.
Cuabing is a traditional preparation of shaved ice that contrasts with xuehuabing (雪花冰; xuěhuābīng), which often also gets called “shaved ice” when named in English.
Xuehuabing’s shaved ice is a water-milk mixture, resulting in a smooth ice cream–like texture and a milky flavor. It’s usually topped with sweetened condensed milk, fruit (Taiwan is especially known for its mango shaved ice), and ingredients like tapioca pearls, tofu pudding, and ice cream/sorbet. Xuehuabing is the more modern, sexy style of shaved ice that’s popular with younger people and people outside Taiwan. It’s infinitely more Instagrammable and way sweeter, so I feel certain it’s only a matter of time before it becomes mega trendy in the U.S. (outside of California, I mean). Is Ice Monster franchising yet? A summer pop-up in New York City would be an absolute coup.
I’m crazy about xuehuabing, but I love cuabing too for all the ways it’s not like xuehuabing. I love that it’s stubbornly unphotogenic and drably colored. That it’s a dessert topped with ingredients that wouldn’t be out of place in a healthy dinner. That it’s dirt cheap and often found in a tiny open-air shop with zero amenities. Unpretentious and refreshing, it’s the perfect cap to my weekly fruit/vegetable shopping trips to the market.