Tropical treat

Towering bowl of ice kacang
served at Johor Golf & Country Club

My earliest experience of ice kacang was not from a bowl or on a plate but in the form of an ice-ball held in my hands with a double ply of newspaper. 

This was the takeaway version of our favourite thirst quencher bought from stalls set up in front of two provision shops located adjacent to my Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at Jalan Ngee Heng.  

These stalls were the busiest on sunny days, especially before and after school hours when students stopped by to get ice-balls to slurp thirstily as they walked to school or made their way slowly home.

A picture of this was brought vividly to mind when I met a former St Joseph student last week who reminisced with me about his experience of walking to school from his home in Kampong Wadi Hana.  

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that he used to buy ice-balls from the stall next to my Ah Kong’s house and we agreed that it was truly the perfect treat in our tropical heat.  Like many students passing that way, he had a regular habit of getting an ice-ball on his way to school or before walking home along the railway line. 

For a mere RM0.05 sen, the stallholder would pack shaved ice into a small bowl and add a dollop of sweetened, boiled red beans into its center before heaping on more shaved ice.  

I used to watch, fascinated at how he would swiftly mould the fast-melting shaved ice into a ball and swish it smoothly around in the bowl to firm up its shape.  

Then he would flavour it with scoops of red syrup and palm sugar, making sure that it was evenly spread all round before topping off the two-tone colour with swirls of evaporated milk.

Traditional manual ice-shaver still in
use at a stall in Port Dickson
Before the ice-ball melted further, he would swiftly pull two sheets of square-cut newsprint paper from a convenient hook and slap it on the ice-ball for takeaways.  

At that time, no-one worried if the print ink may be toxic or if it was unhygienic to make the ice-ball with bare hands and to eat off wet newspapers.  

We just loved the way the ice-ball fitted nicely into the palms of our hands and how refreshing it tasted on a hot day.

Ah Kong used to keep a little cup filled with small change and often gave the children staying with our grandparents at Jalan Ngee Heng, RM0.05 or RM0.10 sen each to buy a treat from the neighbouring provision shops.  

There was a range of pickled plums and sour olives, sweets and candy bars to choose from but very often, my choice was an ice-ball.  

I can still remember the pleasure of eating my way through the ice-ball and how I never mastered the skill to keep it from falling apart.

One hot day my brother, cousins and I bought ice-balls and ate them in the front porch as usual, just in case any dripping may wet the floor.  

For a while we were feeding furiously on the syrupy ice and I cannot forget the shock we had when our cousin Catherine lifted her face from slurping the ice-ball and we saw how her lips had swollen to twice its size.  

She was stunned because her frozen lips not only felt numb but looked thick and rubbery, and it was some hours before they thawed out and returned to normal.

Ice kacang serving at Sedap Corner
This alarming incident did not stop us from enjoying ice-balls again but we were careful not to keep our sensitive lips against the ice for long periods of time.  

Since the stall also served this treat on small enamel plates, we started buying our ice kacang heaped on plates.  

But after we took them home to eat, it was a chore to return the plates later.

I don’t know who started it but it was an ingenious idea to bring our own plate to the stall for our ice kacang takeaway.  

The stall’s plate was only the size of a saucer but when we brought our own, we picked a dinner plate – more than twice that size.  

I guess it was just his goodwill because the friendly stallholder used to scoop a generous portion of red beans into the centre of the plate before heaping on a mountain of shaved ice and flavouring it thoroughly, all for just 5 sen.

On quiet afternoons when grandma was usually not in her kitchen, we would go to the refrigerator and help ourselves to her jug of Ideal evaporated milk.  

Even though the ice kacang was already drizzled with evaporated milk, there was no harm in topping it up with an extra trickle. Then we would enjoy every ice-y spoonful to the very last drop.

Mega bowl hotel version of ice kacang!

Ice kacang certainly hits the spot on a hot and humid day and wherever I am, if it was on the menu, I will not hesitate to indulge in this thirst quencher.  

Its amazing how restaurants and cafes try to outdo each other with the wide variety of ingredients in the shaved ice and how high it can be piled or how elaborately it is decorated. 

In addition to kacang or red beans, there are ingredients like corn kernels, chendol, colourful jelly, chin chau or grass jelly, cocktail fruits and attap chee fruits, and a range of syrup flavours as well as lashings of luxurious chocolate sauce and sprinklings of chopped peanuts, dried fruits and chocolate rice.

At a hotel cafĂ© recently, I was overwhelmed by a mega bowl of ice kacang topped with a scoop of ice-cream in such a huge heap that I had to carefully carve my way through it, lest the whole concoction toppled over.  

Most sophisticated servings of ice kacang now come with a long handled spoon as well as a straw probably because people can’t eat faster than the rate of melting ice.  

This popular thirst quencher is now served in posh hotels, resorts, clubs and stalls but to this day, I still cannot find a taste similar to my humble childhood ice kacang and needless to say, never again at the princely price of only 5 sen.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 9 August 2011

Glad to share some comments received in response to this article.

Alicia said:  I'm dreaming of ice kacang on a hot day like today!

Barney said:  I enjoyed your ice kacang story!

Ka Hwee said:  Best ice kacang was at Ee Hng along the seafront. Then there was the round-about place in the bazaar where JB City Square is now.  Also love this place we called 'the bird shop' because it used to be a bird shop, behind OCBC Bank.

Rose said:  Mouth-watering ice kacang is my favourite!

Jin Seng said:  It brought back lots of memories of my younger days...when it cost 5 sen only...back then!


  1. Anonymous8/17/2011

    Peggy, when you are next in Kulai, I will bring you to Happy Land which serves fantastic ice kacang and rojak.
    Chong Lian How

  2. hi there can i know where to get this ice shaver machine used one or brand new for cheap in India ?

  3. Hey Sanjay, I suggest you Google to find suppliers in India. Regret I do not have any recommendations for you.