It’s like that person you find yourself annoyingly into, but you don’t know why. All the warning signs are there. Every one of those few fulfilling moments seems off, but there you are standing, waiting for your rideshare because they were just too tired to take you home so early in the morning. Always willing to get down every time that phone pings. It definitely doesn’t ring. You put up with that incessant unnecessary throat clearing. You hang on extra long through dinner when they can’t stop looking at their phone. That ghost-cuff relationship drives you absolutely bat sh*! insane, but you still cuff.
You. Still. Cuff.
You always pick up. Probably a little too fast. You show up Kate Winslet in The Holiday style. Christmas gift in hand, none in theirs. You’re always available and ready for all that tangy, salty, sweet, confusing what’s in my mouth taste. Welcome to the flavor relationship I have with Li Hing Mui. Let’s say it again…slowly and all together, LEE-HING-MUE. It’s an acquired taste…sometimes not the best thing for you…addicting AF snack.
Okay so let’s unpack this small and mighty dried deliciousness that I just can’t get enough of.
What exactly is that taste?
The taste, mostly tangy. It hits you right in the roof of your mouth, puckers your lips then calms itself into a mild silky sweetness. Sure it can be easily described as a sour-sweet candy flavor, but it’s not exactly that simple. The bold distinct flavors are as follows:
Tangy. Sweet. Salty.
The main power ingredient listed in all Li Hing Mui powders, is a dried greenish-red jewel. A plum known as Chinese Plum or Japanese Plum. The distinct citrus flavor of the fruit is what helps build an important base. Layered throughout the powder are subtle hints of licorice root. Blended in are varying amounts of sugar and salt. Optionally the food coloring is added to the powder giving it that spicy red look. This my friends is the taste of Li Hing Mui.
It should be said that I am describing a version of Li Hing Mui powder. Not the dried plum, but the powder that covers many plum and many other fruits, candies and your favorite cocktail. It can vary in taste depending on the maker. It could be a little sweeter or a little saltier, but it’s all made with a citrusy plum powder base.
Who is into it?
As ancient as it is distinct in flavor and loved by a population of emphatic supporters, Li Hing Mui has had a grip on the people of Hawaii since it made its way to their shores in the mid 19th century. Truly living up to its name “The Traveling plum”. Sharing yourself through food is a delicious cosmopolitan Hawaii norm. Its fusion food scene is hardly fusion food. It’s local food. Really, it’s home food. And snack culture is very much apart of the home food scene. This delicious red dust can be found incorporated into many staple dishes and snacks.
Li Hing Mui traveled its way to the former Kingdom of Hawaii amid the Chinese Plantation workers who perfected its amazing flavors. Those who took a bold step into a new future intertwined their ways of life with the people of Hawaii, solidifying their place in Hawaiian history. Proudly, my own family tree reaches its roots all the way back to one of those hustlers who worked hard to make a new home for himself in the middle of the ocean. This hardly makes me an expert on the subject at hand. What I know is that it’s a snack that was very much apart of my young life. Like many Hawaii kids no trip to the mall or Chinatown was complete without a scoop of seeds from those large glass sundry jars holding your favorite misunderstood snack.
Why do we need options?
Here’s the real. Li Hing Mui, as delicious as it is, commonly contains synthetics like aspartame, saccharine and red food coloring. All things that definitely are not good for anyone. Look I’m not saying this should be a superfood snack. Although, could it be? For now let’s table that thought. What it is, is simply delicious. Which is why it’s gone from China to Hawaii and held on strong. It’s damn addicting. Thanks to a world where more creative entrepreneurs can thrive and put out quality products, there are numerous delicious options. What I sought out to do initially was make a Li Hing Mui powder synthetics-free mostly for myself.
I wanted to figure out the process. How to dry the fruit and grind it into a powder. Mix in other flavors and come out with something so easily amazing. Sure it would be easier to buy an aspartame and saccharine free product but honestly, I wanted to make it myself.
First. Of. All. Trying to get Chinese plums in an area of the southeastern US (my current place of residence), where there’s only one asian market in your city, is damn near impossible. Actually…it is IMPOSSIBLE.
Second, trying to buy straight Chinese plum powder online and hoping for the best, also not easy.
I wouldn’t give up. Instead, I ordered Kakadu Plum powder. An Australian Bush food fruit known for its naturally high levels of Vitamin C. So there I stood mixing powders to get that sour, sweet, salty taste. Thinking Vitamin C in high amounts some how equals sour taste. Right?
For comparison, I purchased both a synthetic-free Li Hing Mui powder and one that’s classically bright red and full of all the things. I laid out three bowls and poured out my powders. My first attempt tasted, honestly, boring. It wasn’t bad just boring. Instead of puckering my lips and making my mouth want more, I was just left with feelings like, hmm I won’t be calling you again.
After more research it became very clear that I needed Chinese Plums to create a better base. One that really hits that sour note at the top of your mouth. But that’s not an option at the moment. Mixing in a little bit more of this and a bit more of that I couldn’t get that tangy punchy feeling, but I hoped for magic. As if stirring in a pinch more of salt and moving my whisk from clockwise to counterclockwise would make me shout, LI HING MUI! Nothing worked.
Insert my brilliant husband, “you need citrus”. Gently he nudged a bottle of citric acid my way. I felt like this was straight cheating. Hemming and hawing my way through scooping and mixing in the powder, I finally licked my finger and took a dip. BINGO! I married a genius. Still, it wasn’t quite right. By adding dragon fruit powder I was hoping for a bit more of a natural reddish color. Tip, bright pink and meek yellow (Kakadu Plum Powder) doesn’t make red. What can I say? I slept through most of Kindergarten and missed the lecture on primary colors. Anyway, I was simply hoping to achieve something that reminded me of the classic red powder and met all the flavor profiles.
Are substitutes possible?
This is when I met my friend, black currant powder. A bit more of a punchy taste. With a decent balance of sweet and savory along with a smidge of licorice root I licked and dipped again. Once it hit my tongue I thought, “Damn girl, I think you got something.”
It still needs work. I don’t even think I can call this Li Hing Mui. Maybe it’s Li Hing Mui’s traveling cousin? That person who comes home for the holidays suddenly more “well adjusted” because they spent 3 months working aboard. You know, it’s that person who can’t stop talking about sustainable avocado toast while puffing away at their latest vape pen. Let’s just say this version hasn’t quite made it’s way into my D.M.’s, but it certainly deservers a revisit. The ultimate test will come when I sprinkle this powder-cuff treat over popcorn and mix it in with my homemade Mochi Crunch, then send it off to the islander-fam for testing. Fingers crossed, but honestly who gives a damn? I love Li-Hing-Mui. Even if just for one filthy night of rom-coms and tangy red tongues.