By Chamoy City Limits

Raspas are a puro San Antonio summer treat

A selection of raspas from Chamoy City Limits

Paul Stephen / Staff

When you reach for a raspa this summer — and you know you will, because it’s hotter than the devil in a sweater out there — you have one man to thank for the countless stores across San Antonio selling those frosty treats. And galling as it may be for connoisseurs of the puro San Antonio treats doused with chamoy and candy, he’s from Dallas.

Big blocks of ice first became available in the 1850s, which paved the way for vendors selling shaved ice desserts. But making those treats was a grueling job, as the name, derived from the Spanish word “raspar” meaning “to scrape,” implies.

“In Texas they were hand-shaved by raspadoras on the street. It was a very physical endeavor,” said Ana Fernandez, owner of Chamoy City Limits, a popular raspa spot.

Enter Samuel Bert — known to many as King Sammie. This Dallas entrepreneur started selling snow cones at the State Fair of Texas in 1919. Realizing he could work smarter, not harder, he developed the world’s first powered ice shaving and crushing machine and patented the device in 1928. It’s thanks to King Sammie that we now have a snow cone on every corner.
Raspas, unlike Italian ice, mangonadas and other treats made from water frozen with sugar and other flavors, begin as nothing more than plain ice with a lot of history. The Roman Emperor Nero enjoyed shaved ice desserts as far back as 27 B.C. made from fruit, honey and snow gathered by slaves from nearby mountains. In Japan, kakigori, or treats made from shaved ice and condensed milk date back a thousand years.

Those historic desserts were simply flavored with minimal ingredients. But we do things different in South Texas. Here, raspas take on the big, bold flavors of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, frequently topped with fiery chile powders, tart pickles and pungent chamoy sauce. More elaborate versions may sport gummy bears, sour belt candy, slices of fresh fruit and more.

“It’s the spicier notes that make it more unique and makes it specific to Texas,” Fernandez said.

And people get quite particular when it comes to how they like that ice ground. Some raspa fans will seek out shops where the ice is more coarse and crunchy, while others flock to vendors who serve light and fluffy ice almost like snow.

Fernandez provides both. Part of her cult following is drawn to her unique approach which places coarse ice in the bottom of the cup and light, finely shaved ice on top. The layering does a better job of keeping the flavorful syrups evenly distributed at the top of the cup, allowing them to slowly melt into the coarser ice below.

When Fernandez was a child in Corpus Christi in the 1970s, raspas were a simple affair akin to the snow cones found in other parts of the country, just ice and syrup. By the time she moved to San Antonio in 2009, raspas had morphed into the elaborate centerpieces topped with swizzles of colorful chamoy sauce, sweet and sour candies and more found on countless Instagram posts today.