Li hing mui is a truly unique flavor, difficult to convey: imagine a rust-red powder so tart and bitter that it makes your mouth pucker. Strangely, li hing mui powder goes well with everything, from pineapple and ginger to sticky candy. A Hawaiian favorite with a strong and pungent taste, it is only available in a few select places – unless you are in Hawaii, where candy and sweets are sprinkled with li hing mui powder and sold in every market and shop on the island.
A story a friend told about this delicacy recounted how, just after beginning school in Kaneohe, he was offered a handful of li hing ume (plum) at lunch. Having just arrived on Oahu, he was eager to make friends, and promptly stuck the russet, puckery candies in his mouth. Rapidly realizing the prank, he refused to show his shock about the intense flavor. He made good friends with his would-be trickster, and began a deep love of the li hing flavor that continues even now, forty years after he left the islands.
The origin of li hing mui powder is curious. The powder is a combination of plum, licorice, artificial sweetener, sugar, and salt. In astringency, it is comparable to powdered alum, yet is much more sweet/sour than strictly bitter. Typically the food name is combined with the li hing, as in ‘li hing mango’, ‘li hing ginger’, and even ‘li hing gummi worms’. Notably, li hing mui is a type of plum that is ground up and prepared into li hing mui powder. The preserved plum can be bought in packages, and has the same vibrant taste.
Physically, li hing is a fine, sandy, rust-red powder. It reconstitutes well in water, and swiftly becomes a thick, crimson paste with intense staining power. For my own uses, I mix ½ teaspoon directly onto 2 cups of fresh-cut fruit, letting the juice mingle freely. Typically a scant portion is used, but it can be flavored to taste. It goes well with most tropical, non-citrus fruit, apples, ginger, popcorn, shave ice, ice cream, and candy. As a note, you may want to wear gloves or risk red fingers for a day.
Li Hing Mui’s ingredients (Enjoy Brand from Taiwan):
Plum extract; salt; licorice; FD&C; Red #40; Yellow #5; aspartame*.
- Note: Due to aspartame, li hing can carry a warning for sensitive people.