China may have created the world’s first frozen dessert. It’s known as baobing or chua bing, if you’re in Taiwan. Records of people making a dessert from finely-shaved ice goes back to 1,100 B.C, but many experts believe it existed before that since many foods are enjoyed long before they get written down. The first versions of the dessert probably included types of custard, fruit, taro, and mung beans, and they were portioned to share. As time went on, the dessert spread and regions added their own local ingredients.
Despite baobing’s popularity in east Asia, especially China and Taiwan, Americans didn’t really notice it. In 1972, Richard Nixon enjoyed the treat with Mao Zedong at a big state dinner, and in the 1980’s, it started gaining attention in the US.
What makes baobing distinct from regular shaved ice? The ice is shaved into sheets or flakes, unlike the snowy texture of shave ice from, say, Hawaii. The syrups are made from fruit and condensed milk. Traditionally, you’ll find fruit like mango, strawberry, lychee, and coconut on baobing, as well as sweet red beans. In order to stand out from the countless baobing shops, you can also find sellers making the dessert with grass jelly, mochi, and even sugared chilled peanut or sesame soup. Like frozen yogurt shops, many will lay out a huge spread of toppings, so customers can choose whatever they like. It’s not uncommon for a shop to also buy already-flavored ice blocks, which they’ll shave and then top with fruit, syrup, and so on.
You can find baobing shops all over China and Taiwan. In the US, head to Blockheads Shavery in Los Angeles (they call their baobing “snow cream”) or look up Taiwanese restaurants and dessert shops in your area, like Crystal Ice in Flushing, New York.