The Singapore sun is high in the afternoon sky, the heavy air sticky with humidity. I, however, am unfazed. I’m standing in the shaded comfort of ABC Brickworks, one of Singapore’s oldest hawker centers, waiting patiently in line at the Jin Jin Dessert stall. And any moment now, I’ll be savoring the sweet, sweet chill of ice kachang.
As the line creeps forward, I watch as local office workers—women in skirts and heels, men in short-sleeved shirts and pressed pants—return to their tables holding towers of shaved ice on a bed of beans (kachang means “bean” in Malay) and smothered in fruit, jellies, and neon-colored syrups.
Many chilled and frozen desserts are available in this relentlessly hot island nation located one degree north of the equator. But ice kachang— which dates to the mid–20th century—holds a special place in the heart of Singaporeans young and old.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me. Until I moved to Singapore full-time, I visited the city-state frequently. For years, I passed the ubiquitous stalls hawking the psychedelically colored treat . . . and just kept on walking. I thought it would be much too sweet, and at the time, I had a no-fluorescent-foods policy.
In 2016, a friend finally convinced me to give it a try. I was hot, hungry, and thirsty—and ice kachang was a revelation. As I took my first bite, waves of flavor washed over my tongue. The dessert was extremely light, absolutely refreshing, and sweet, though much less cloying than I’d believed it would be. It was an almost medicinal experience: The combination of ice and sugar restored my hydration levels and boosted my blood sugar, just the remedy for an overheated traveler.
To this day, I love observing the ice kachang assembly process, and this visit to ABC Brickworks is no different. As I near the front of the line, I watch as Ewan Tang, co-owner of the Jin Jin stall, works. First, he places a scoop of cooked, sweetened adzuki beans and a scoop of jellylike attap chee (palm seeds) into a bowl. He then places the bowl beneath a machine that transforms a chunk of block ice into a snowy pile of shaved ice. From there, things get more interesting—and more colorful. Tang drizzles condensed milk and the diner’s desired syrup (from rose to sarsaparilla to pandan leaf) and adds the customer’s preferred toppings, which might include sweet corn kernels, peanuts, durian fruit, jackfruit, mango, the jellied coconut known as nata de coco . . . the list goes on.
The combination of ice and sugar restored my hydration levels and boosted my blood sugar, just the remedy for an overheated traveler.
While a traditional “recipe” exists for ice kachang—gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup, beans, and condensed milk—these days, the variations are endless. When it’s my turn to order, I go with strawberry syrup and nata de coco, my go-to flavor combination, then join the office workers at the yellow tables spread throughout the hawker center. I eat quickly, using a wide soup spoon to shovel up the ice before it melts. Some people like to leave the final dregs; others, myself included, drain the remainder as if it were leftover milk in a cereal bowl. I lean back. Six years and countless bowls in, ice kachang still has the power to satiate and cool.
It’s another humid evening when I meet Shermay Lee, a chef, award-winning cookbook author, and authority on Singapore heritage cuisine. Lee is the niece of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and now runs her own product line, Shermay’s Singapore Fine Food. We’re sipping tea at a mutual friend’s house as she shares the, admittedly hazy, history of ice kachang.
Shaved ice, of course, is not original to this part of the world. Historians believe that in the mid–19th century, ships began to import naturally occurring ice to places such as Hawai‘i, where people would painstakingly shave blocks of ice by hand. This changed when freezers were introduced in the 1940s, Lee says. In Singapore and Malaysia—once a united country—ingenious street vendors used this newfangled machine to create large blocks of ice, which they then transformed into a fluffy powder using hand-cranked ice shavers. Vendors would scoop the ice into a compact sphere—known as an ice ball—drown it in syrup, and serve it as a snack meant to be eaten with the hands.
Over the years, as the nation evolved (Singapore gained its independence in 1965), the ice ball morphed into ice kachang as we know it: a tower of shaved ice best eaten with a spoon. Now, Lee says, there’s a tendency for ice kachang hawkers to try to outdo one another with over-the-top flavor combinations. (Singaporeans have a friendly but serious rivalry with Malaysians about who makes the best ice kachang.)
“In a sense, the ice ball–to–ice kachang evolution reflects progress in a post–World War II era,” Lee explains. “[We went] from eating it with bare hands on the streets of old Singapore to having the luxury of sitting at a hawker center with a table and stool under a roof with a fan.”
Lee says that things continued in much the same way until the early 2000s. As younger Singaporeans sought work outside the food industry, and even off the island, ice kachang—and the multigenerational hawker stalls selling it—became endangered. In 2011, the government stepped in, creating programs and offering grants to, in part, encourage young people to learn the trade. The government also worked with hawker stall owners on succession planning. In December 2020, UNESCO added hawker culture to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage traditions.
At the time, Singapore was in one of its many COVID-19 lockdowns and hawker centers were closed for dining. Some stall owners had pivoted to offering delivery service, but that wasn’t possible for those making ice kachang. The news, however abstract, was a little lift to the spirit—a reminder of the role of hawker centers in Singapore cuisine.
As I leave Lee, I reflect both on her words and on the past few years. Thanks to government support and the recent easing of COVID-19 restrictions, most stalls have reopened and are as busy today as they once were. On my journey home, in fact, I pass by a hawker center so lively and brightly lit it’s like a beacon. Inside, people sit around tables, laughing and talking, many of them dipping spoons into those technicolor towers, those symbols of place and national identity. It feels like a revelation.