Hawaii’s Best-Kept Snack Secret is a Pickled Plum Powder
Li hing mui is sprinkled on fruit and candies.
What’s sweet, sour, and salty, and good on everything? In Hawaii, the answer is easy: li hing mui. Li hing mui is a pickled plum powder that came to the islands by way of China in the early 1900s. The name itself is derived from Chinese; in China, the dried plums are known as huamei, but the name li hing mui -- which is what the prized powder is known as in Hawaii -- translates to “traveling plum.”
If you grew up as a local in Hawaii in the past 100 years, li hing undoubtedly holds a special place in your heart. Found in local shops known as crack seed stores, li hing can be purchased in its whole, dried plum form; as a powder; or coated over snack items like gummy bears and dried mangos. The flavorful powder can also be sprinkled on fresh fruit, be included in salads, and even coat one of Hawaii’s most-loved sweets: malasadas -- or Portuguese-style donuts.
Leonard’s Bakery, one of Hawaii’s most well-known malasada purveyors, introduced li hing to the menu in 1994 and never looked back. “We get a lot of inquiries for our li hing malasadas but I would say it's more popular with locals,” said Chaianne Sombathphibane, an office assistant for the famed bakery. The hot, fresh donut spheres can be rolled in li hing powder upon customers’ requests. “I believe Li hing is so popular in Hawaii because we all grew up eating it as kids -- it just carried on through our next generations.”
Another popular way to consume li hing -- aside from coated on a fried malasada -- is on top of shaved ice, one of Hawaii’s most refreshing desserts. It’s a prominent ingredient at Uncle Clay’s House of Aloha, a shaved ice shop that began as a crack seed store and continues to serve colorful bowls of frozen, syrup-soaked treats.
“I remember going to the crack seed store that I dreamed of owning as a little boy; today, I am the co-owner of it, regularly coming [in] to purchase my favorite, li hing cherry seeds, that I could never eat enough of [as a kid],” ‘Uncle’ Clay Chang proudly said.
At the two locations of Uncle Clay’s House of Aloha, customers can find an all-natural li hing shaved ice syrup that is sweet, salty, and sour. For a lighter touch, guests can also request to have their frozen desserts sprinkled with li hing. Uncle Clay predicts that at least 15% of the orders at his shaved ice shops include li hing in some way, but notes it’s especially popular with locals and adventurous eaters.
“We have crack seed stores all over the island that are stocked with every kind of li hing snack and sweet treats locals would ever want,” said Kelsey Yamanaka, an Oahu-born-and-raised champion of li hing. “My fondest memories of li hing [were] when my grandpa took me to the neighborhood crack seed store every Friday after school. I’d always get something with li hing, and when my parents came home, I’d greet them with a red stained smile -- a telltale sign of li hing consumption.”
One of these crack seed stores in Oahu is called Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks. John Lin, the owner and founder, grew up in a crack seed store and noticed that anytime anyone left the business with snacks in tow, they’d be wearing a smile. He wanted to continue providing that joy by “serving aloha daily” through his own crack seed shop.
“‘Crack seed’ for us in Hawaii represents community and comfort,” Lin explained. The term ‘crack seed’ is in reference to the dried plums that make li hing mui; the seed of the fruit is exposed -- or cracked open -- to enhance the sweet and salty flavors. “Traditionally, the plum used in li hing mui is eaten much like a sunflower seed but in reverse. The good stuff is on the outside of the seed -- you throw the whole thing in your mouth, chewing off the meat and spitting out the seed.”
Beyond tasting satisfyingly sweet, salty, and sour, Lin notes that the popularity of li hing is tied to historical context. “Li hing mui draws much of its roots from the sugar cane plantation days, [where] many of the immigrant farmers from all over Asia, but mainly China, would bring with them these treats as something to eat on the job as a reminder of the home they had left behind for better opportunities.” The sour-salty treats were sustaining, and were passed down from generation to generation to become one of the most established flavors in all of Hawaii.
“Locals put li hing on everything and are bewildered why anyone wouldn’t like it,” Yamanaka explained. “My dad loves Alan Wong’s cold li hing tomato salad. It sounds like an unusual pairing, but it works.”
Since her childhood years spent in Hawaii, Yamanaka has left the islands and made her way to the mainland in the pursuit of higher education. Even so, li hing has never been far from her mind -- even when she is physically distant at her current residence in Chicago.
“My lovely mom makes sure that I am never without li hing snacks and powder,” Yamanaka said, citing care packages that are filled with local treats to prevent homesickness. “Eating my favorite li hing snacks brings me back to simpler times when I was just a kid, not worrying about the past or future… but just living in the moment with my li hing.”