Kimberly Holland

This vividly bright sweet-tart treat is uniquely flavorful and entirely worth the shipping costs.

Kimberly Holland
September 17, 2018

Along a wall of neatly packaged sweets, candies, and treats, I spotted a bag of what I can only describe as tiny, shriveled, possibly decaying grapes.

I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the rotting candy on the wall. No, it seemed. These Halloween prop-looking pieces didn’t seem to stick out to anyone but me.

Curious, I picked up the bag to inspect: Li Hing Mui. 

That offered no clues.

Just then, an employee of the impressive candy emporium I’d wondered into during my days in Honolulu approached me.

“Sour plums. Do you want to try one?” she asked.

My first instinct was to absolutely turn her down—they looked like they expired long before either of us was born—but my “try everything once” life motto reared its head.

“Sure?” I uttered, more as a question than a statement.

She returned from behind a counter, opened a bag, and plucked one out. I slipped it into my mouth, expecting to soon lament my inquisitiveness. 

To my surprise, what appeared on my palate was an intensely sweet tang. It was equal parts sour candy and sweet dehydrated fruit.

Li hing mui, it turns out, is Cantonese for “traveling plum.” It’s the name given to dehydrated plums that have been rehydrated in sugar syrup and dehydrated several times over. The plums that are used are picked while they’re still green, which provides naturally bitter and sour flavors. The sugar syrup often contains salt for a bit more pucker power.

These salty, dried plums were first introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the late 19th or early 20 centuries by Chinese laborers likely looking for a durable and stable treat that could carry them the long distance and keep their mouths busy in the islands’ sugar cane plantations.

Today, you’re more likely to find them in candy stores, grocery stores, and gas stations around Hawaii. They’re eaten like candies, quickly dissolving in your mouth.

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You’ll also find red li hing, a ground-up powder of plum skin that was soaked in a combination of sugar, salt, licorice, and food coloring. The fine powder is then used to coat candies, like gummy bears, fruit belts, and other sticky sweets. It’s also used to make syrups for shave ice. It’s sprinkled on popcorn, mochi, even malasadas, Hawaii’s (by way of Portugal) famous fried doughnut-like pastries, too.

The best way I found to enjoy this unique treat is sprinkled on fresh fruit, particularly pineapple. The li hing-dusted fruit gets a punch of intense tang and sourness, but the most interesting aspect is the unexpected saltiness.

At first, the salt can be overwhelming—you know most sour things use a hefty dose of salt to get the lip-smacking effect, but this is more than even that. It’s almost dehydrating. (But in a good way, if that makes any sense.) Then the sweet-tart kick rounds it out, and you’re left aghast at the absolute flavor explosion delivered by this one ingredient.

Never ones to leave basic food basic, Hawaiians have also found many other fun ways to incorporate this distinctive flavor in everyday dishes. Li hing powder has been known to show up on baby back ribs, in salad vinaigrettes, and in smoothies. It would make a great natural coloring for frostings, mixed drinks, and more. Margaritas in Hawaii often come rimmed with li hing powder instead of the typical salt. It’s salty enough to balance the classic margarita sweet burn with a just-right hint of tropical fruit sweetness.

Buy your own pack of li hing powder ($12 for 2 packets), li hing mui candies ($15 for 1 bag), or my personal favorite li hing mui strawberry belts ($15 for 1 bag). The price may seem higher in comparison to your basic Sour Patch Kids, but the flavor is so intense, you’ll be able to pace yourself accordingly. Plus, they’re uniquely Hawaiian, so you can get a fun island experience without the price of a flight.

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