My family and I tasted ais kacang in the Chinatown Complex food court in Singapore. The food court is dingy and poorly lit, but has about 200 stalls serving all kinds of food and drink. If you can find your way around the place and remember how to get back to where your friends or family are sitting, a good meal is easy to obtain. In the gritty environs of the Chinatown Complex, the dessert did not bowl me over, but perhaps it would taste better while sitting on a quiet palm-lined beach or in a lush city garden. The deep, rich flavor of the palm sugar syrup was pleasant, as were the rice noodle and the jelly pieces, but I wasn't crazy about the red beans or corn.
In a recent New York Times article (full text is behind the dollar-wall), Dana Bowen tries to carve away the mysteries of Asian ice desserts:
Across East Asia shaved ice - shave ice, it is usually called - mixes the refreshment of ice cream with a continent's worth of variety. Sold as a snack by street vendors or as a dessert in restaurants of every caliber, it can be as simple as watermelon juice splashed on ice and as outlandish as slush doused with cornflakes, whipped cream and colored jellies.
Such icy variety is nothing new in Malaysia, where A.B.C. (the initials stand for air batu campur, or water stone mix), is a tradition. At Sentosa, a Malaysian restaurant in Flushing, a thin shave soaks up condensed milk and palm sugar over a bed of roasted peanuts, green and red beans, chewy palm seeds, canned corn and black grass jelly, which is made from dried herbs and has a medicinal tang.
A Malaysian dish called chendol or cendol swaps coconut milk for condensed milk and adds rice- or pea-flour noodles flavored with pandanus, a leaf that tastes a bit like bay leaf. Palm sugar, cooked to caramel, gives the ice a coffeelike depth.
The evolution of shave ice snacks has puzzled food historians. While it is possible that each country developed its own recipes once ice became readily available, there may be a single taproot.
"It's more Malaysian than anything else," said Jacqueline M. Newman, editor of Flavor and Fortune, a Chinese-food journal published in Queens. She drew connections between the jellies and nuts in Malaysian ais kachang ("bean ice") and the ingredients of halo-halo ("mix mix") in the Philippines. "Traffic between the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia was considerable in the 1500's," she said.