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.”