The Best Taiwanese Dessert You've Probably Never Heard Of: Snow Ice

Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Christina Chi opened Houston's first snow ice shop, Nu Cafe, three years ago.
Snow has hit Houston for the summer.

Snow ice, that is. It's a Taiwanese dessert that's been gaining popularity here in the Bayou City for the past few years, but in spite of its increasing adoration, many Houstonians still don't know much about it. The ice cream--for even though it looks like some sort of coral or ocean plant life, it is ice cream--was supposedly invented at the Shilin Night Market in Taiwan, but Singapore, the Philippines and Hawaii all have similar shaved ice desserts.

Here in Houston, one of the most popular spots is Snow Block Shavery, partially because it's one of the only places you can get snow ice, also called ribbon ice, outside of Chinatown. My favorite spot is a little shop in Dun Huang Plaza off of Bellaire, where Christina Chi has been serving up delectable treats for three years: Nu Cafe.

Green tea flavored snow ice looks almost like lettuce but tastes like slightly sweetened tea.
"I use all natural ingredients," Chi explains while scooping mochi and mango onto a plate of snow ice for me. "There are other places in town that use flavored powder in their ice cream, but I use all real, natural ingredients. There is real green tea in the green tea and real mango in the mango."

All of the varieties of ice cream at Nu Cafe contain dairy except the fruit-based ones, which sets them apart from Hawaiian-style shaved ice--usually just ice chips with syrup poured on top. Chi calls her product "nu ice" rather than snow ice or ribbon ice, and she describes it as light and fluffy ice cream. It's neither shaved ice nor a snow-cone-type dessert nor, really, ice cream, but something akin to all of these things.

Snow ice is made by mixing up ice cream, essentially, then freezing it into very hard cylindrical blocks. These blocks are then loaded into a special machine that spins the cylinder and shaves off the bottom layer of ice cream in tissue paper thin ribbons. A server holds a plate under the machine catching and arranging the folds of ice cream as they fall. Next, the dish is topped with any number of fresh fruits, mochi mango boba, condensed milk or fruit syrups.

The result is a truly beautiful plate of food. The show ice ends up taking on an organic shape, almost like a head of lettuce, and if you didn't know you were being served ice cream, you might be confused by its appearance. One bite, though, and you can taste all the natural ingredients that go into every block of snow ice.

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Barbara Muirhead
Barbara Muirhead

Got some last night, very nice, I had strawberry with strawberries and condensed milk mm mmmm


With all due respect while shaved ice is nothing new xue hua bing (what Nu ice serves) is relatively new -- i.e. has popped up within the past couple of years which has been well after Walsh's tenure at the Press.


With all due respect, this is hardly new and unheard of for us readers of Houston Press....maybe to the oldsters at My Table or the Chron. I remember Star Snow Ice making a splash in the press years ago during Mr Walsh's tenure as critic, or even before.

Ivy Clonce
Ivy Clonce

I thought about tagging you when I saw this :) Amber Guo Janiczek

paval topcommenter

this is by far one of my favorite spots for dessert in Houston. The Nu Ice stuff is somehow not as sweet as regular ice cream and even though preparation described here sounds as if it is exactly the same ice cream I will continue lying to myself that the sweetness comes from the fruit alone. 

I always take Durian and am of course always amused by the question: "Have you White Person ever had Durian before". In frozen form Durian does not smell at all and I like the slightly off flavor. The topping of choice for me is always lychee spheres, a molecular cuisine thing, a kind of lychee caviar. Fits good with Durian and makes it fun to it. 

The Chinatown location is aprox. 45 minutes from my house. The Fountainview location five. My downfall...

Tom Williams
Tom Williams

NuCafe is my summer escape. Chilled flavored ice, vibrant fruit, a touch of sweetness...relief from a 100 degree summer day.

Barbara Muirhead
Barbara Muirhead

Ooh I need to go try this, wonder if hubby will take me tonight?

KaitlinS topcommenter

@gennisen  What Star Snow Ice made is different from what Nu Cafe does. And Nu Cafe started doing it before Snow Block Shavery. I'm pretty sure it was the first or one of the first spots in town to do this style of ribbon ice.

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