The Tart and Tangy Ingredient Hawaii Can't Stop Eating
I don't remember the first time I had dried plum. Maybe it was on a playground at my elementary school in Guam. Whenever it was, what I'll never forget is how my fingers would be stained red after eating one, and how I could still taste traces of saltiness hours after nothing was left but the marble-sized pit.
In Guam, these Chinese pickled and dried, sweetened plums are called "sweet and sours" because they are just that — sweet, sour, and a bit salty, too. (Not the usual characteristics you'd attribute to fruit.) In Hawaii, they're called li hing mui (pronounced lee hee moo-ee, or lee hing moo-ee), or "traveling plum." And on the islands, they're absolutely everywhere.
A Taste of Li Hing Mui
The flavor of li hing mui is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't had it before — and it can be an acquired taste. Saltiness is what hits first, followed by a sweetness that blankets your tongue, usually due to a sweetener like aspartame. Then, a tartness works its way across your taste buds (some are so tart, fighting a pucker is a lost cause). There aren't many food that share the flavor of li hing mui, which is why it's so unique. Can you think of another food that has a subtle prune-like, licorice flavor?
How Li Hing Mui Made Its Way to Hawaii
The history of li hing mui's popularity in Hawaii doesn't come with one clear-cut answer, but we can speculate. Perhaps it can be attributed to a combination of savvy entrepreneurship and cultural nostalgia. In Hawaii, li hing mui, along with other Chinese preserved fruits, traces back to the late 19th/early 20th century to a family of Chinese importers who tapped into the affinity for sweet and sour foods the people in Hawaii apparently had. The Japanese have a similar snack called umeboshi, and since they made up nearly a fifth of the population, both factors could have contributed to li hing mui's popularity and it becoming a local favorite.
How to Eat Li Hing Mui
What really blew my mind when I encountered li hing mui in Hawaii was all the different ways it was used. Eating the dried plum whole seemed to be relegated to playgrounds and amateurs — so much for the red-stained fingertips of my youth! It turns out the best way to get more bang for your buck is the powdered form. Li hing powder (li hing muiis the name for the plum) can be found at any Crack Seed store in Hawaii, and seems to be just about everywhere from shave ice stands, around the rim of the ubiquitous li hing margarita, to the gift store at Dole Plantation.
- Sprinkled over fruit: The most common way to use li hing powder is on fruit (hence, the powder at Dole plantation). If you've ever added salt to fruit, you can kick up the flavor of that same fruit with li hing powder. It's the best with pineapple, and is also great on citrus, apples, strawberries, and watermelon. If you're familiar with the Mexican fruit seasoning tajin, or the candy lucas, li hing is the sweeter, milder version of that. (Fun fact: The Mexican snack saladitos are almost identical to li hing mui. Saladitos tend to be saltier, and may have chile on them. "Traveling plum" indeed.)
- As garnish for cocktails: Just like tajin is sprinkled on fruit, it is also used as a substitute for salt on the rims of cocktail glasses. Li hing powder adorns the rims of margaritas — classic or others. Li hing on the rim of a piña colada was a game changer. If someone was feeling particularly adventurous, one could probably replace the olive in a martini with a whole or pitted li hing mui.
- As a topping for shaved ice: One of the must-have foods in Hawaii is shave (not shaved) ice. An elevated snow cone, shave ice is a frozen treat of finely shaved, powder-like ice topped with a myriad of ingredients such as sweet beans, condensed milk, and ice cream, in addition to the typical rainbow of colored syrups in flavors such as passion fruit, pineapple, lychee, or coconut. My personal favorite topping is a generous sprinkle of li hingpowder. The saltiness and tanginess of it just goes perfectly with the cloyingly sweet quality of shave ice syrups.