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The Hawaiian snack li hing mui is everywhere, even margaritas and malasadas

At Shimazu Shave Ice in Honolulu, a frosty treat with three flavors of li hing.

Kathy Weber reacted to three little words ubiquitous in Hawaii the way many people do: She scrunched up her face. Her mouth started watering — and not in a good way. And she said almost breathlessly, “Oh, my. I remember those.”

“Those” are li hing mui, also known as Chinese crack seed. Anyone who has spent time here, as Weber did in her childhood, knows about li hing mui, which means “traveling plum.”

They also know that this snack can turn your mouth inside out with its powerful sweet/sour flavor.

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That’s because it’s a “plum that is picked green, which means it is inherently sour and slightly bitter,” said Grant Sato, a chef instructor in the culinary arts department at the University of Hawaii at Kapiolani Community College.

The fruit is dehydrated and rehydrated several times in a sugar syrup, he said.

The snack’s introduction in Hawaii dates to the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1890s, who brought the durable treat with them.

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But it wasn’t until almost a century later that it began to make its way into food iterations, said Sato, who is also host and co-executive producer of the “What’s Cooking Hawaii?” TV show.

During processing, pieces of the plum that broke off were ground into dust, he said, and, hello, flavorings for margaritas, baby back ribs, gummy bears and more — li hing everything.

Li hing mui, a Hawaii snack, is ubiquitous. It tastes better than it looks.
Li hing mui, a Hawaii snack, is ubiquitous. It tastes better than it looks. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times

Li hing mui with the seed inside the plum is an acquired taste, and not everyone acquires it on the first try. Or second. Or fourth.

I acquired the taste when I was about 7 and have never lost it. (I’m eating/sucking on a li hing mui with the seed as I write.)

I taste-tested li hing mui seed and li hing-dusted products on a group of colleagues. Read what they had to say before you take the plunge for seeds or other stuff.

You don’t have to love crack seed to love li hing flavoring in all sorts of foods because the li hing powder doesn’t turn something sweet into something sour. Think of it as a flavor enhancer.

On a September trip to Oahu, I created a short li hing trail — because who doesn’t need a life enhancer? — which led me to different parts of the island: a Sunday morning outdoor marketplace, a Mexican restaurant, a malasada truck and more.

What did a panel of non-conoisseurs have to say about this snack? »

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Even if crack seed-inspired confections aren’t your thing, seeing other places on Oahu where you might not ordinarily venture gives you a view of life outside Waikiki.

Like li hing mui itself, life beyond the bubble of the world’s most famous beach gives you the sweet with the sour. In the end, it’s satisfying because it’s the real deal — if you can stand the intensity.

Aloha Stadium Swap Meet & Marketplace

Shin Lin at the marketplace part at the Aloha Stadium. He also has a retail space, Lin's Hawaiian Snacks, in downtown Honolulu.
Shin Lin at the marketplace part at the Aloha Stadium. He also has a retail space, Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks, in downtown Honolulu. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times

Meet Shin Lin, or, as a customer once dubbed him, “Pineapple Man.”

The second-best bargain at the Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday marketplace is Lin’s li hing-flavored pineapple chunks for $4. (The first is the $1 admission to the parking lot.)

Lin let me sample the goods before I forked over my four one-dollar bills for the Maui-grown, Honolulu-flavored pineapple, but he knew I wouldn’t be able to resist after one bite.

He was right.

The Maui pineapple, Sato told me later, is low acid, so the first thing you taste is sweet.

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But you also get a “creamy taste,” Lin said. Right again, although “creamy” isn’t a word one ordinarily associates with pineapple.

“It’s da bomb,” he added.

Right a third time.

Plenty of souvenirs at the Aloha Stadium.
Plenty of souvenirs at the Aloha Stadium. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles times

Come for the pineapple. Stay for the bargains. The marketplace is a great source for souvenirs, including some of that li hing mui powder. (The swap meet part, farther in, is more like a flea market.)

Aloha Stadium Swap Meet & Marketplace, 99-500 Salt Lake Blvd., Aiea, about 25 minutes (or longer, depending on traffic) from Waikiki. The marketplace is open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. (The swap meet opens at 6:30 a.m. Sundays.)

Catharine Hamm/Los Angeles Times

Lin also has a bricks-and-mortar store that sells all manner of li hing products (and more) at Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks, 401 Kamakee St., Honolulu.

It’s not the only place in town that sells such products, but the variety is amazing, and the old-fashioned canisters reminded me of the days when good things came in glass jars, not packages.

The Local

Caleb Carter pours strawberry flavored with li hing over shave ice in a cup.
Caleb Carter pours strawberry flavored with li hing over shave ice in a cup. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times

I took my bag of pineapple with me and vowed I wouldn’t eat it as I drove on the H1 and the H3 took me to windward Kailua.

Another promise broken.

For me, windward Oahu holds the promise of cooler temperatures.

Yet another promise broken.

After visiting some old haunts, I headed to the Local for shave ice, where Caleb Carter was about to make magic for my parched mouth.

The secret to great shave ice, he said, is very fresh ice. The secret to this strawberry li hing concoction, he added, is the strawberries, grown on the slopes of Haleakala on Maui.

Pretty in pink, the strawberry li hing from the Local in Kailua.
Pretty in pink, the strawberry li hing from the Local in Kailua. Catharine Hamm/Los Angeles Times

It’s a secret to savor. The syrup made it not too sweet, not too tart and just right for an afternoon so warm that it soon became a slushy drink, which was good too.

Is $5.50 pricey for a shave ice? Perhaps. But one could argue, successfully, that a drink made with top-grade booze is better than a well drink.

I rest my case.

Info: The Local, 131 Hekili St., Kailua

Leonard’s Malasadamobile

Leonard’s, which specializes in malasadas, the Portuguese doughnuts, now has Malasada Mobiles (this one is in Hawaii Kai) that sell their special confections, including a li hing flavor.
Leonard’s, which specializes in malasadas, the Portuguese doughnuts, now has Malasada Mobiles (this one is in Hawaii Kai) that sell their special confections, including a li hing flavor. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times

Can you be in a bad mood in Hawaii?

Yes, you can, and I was on another day on Oahu.

And then I saw it: a red-and-white striped Leonard’s Malasadamobile parked in the Koko Marina shopping center in Hawaii Kai.

Goodbye, melancholy. Hello, malasadas.

Amazing how a little Portuguese doughnut can turn your day around, especially one dusted with li hing-flavored sugar.

You can try custard-filled, chocolate, cinnamon-sugar or coconut malasadas, but … why would you? Li hing and Leonard’s is the quintessential Hawaiian marriage.

You will see no picture of this little puffed piece of pastry because it was gone in 60 seconds.

Leonard’s is dispatching its brand of aloha in three mobile bakeries, a blessing if you can’t get to the not-mobile bakery at 933 Kapahulu in downtown Honolulu, a curse if your pants don’t fit after a few days.

Leonard’s Malasadamobiles can be found in Hawaii Kai at the Koko Marina shopping center, about 30 minutes east of Waikiki; Pearlridge (near the Aloha Stadium); and at Waikele Shopping Center in Waipahu, about 45 minutes northwest of Waikiki. And if you’re in Yokohama, Japan, there’s a Leonard’s there too.

Mexico

The li hing margarita at Mexico is pretty and potent.
The li hing margarita at Mexico is pretty and potent. Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times

It may seem un-Hawaiian to have lunch in a Mexican eatery, but Mexico restaurant beckoned me, not only because of the cuisine but also because of the promise of a li hing mui margarita.

A li hing margarita, Shin Lin had told me, “can knock you on your butt.”

I doubted it.

After about four sips, I realized Lin was right. Again. “Step away from the straw,” I said to myself, and for once I listened to my own advice.

The enormous chicken tamale was fine, at least, what I remember of it.

But the $10 margarita I will never forget. Frozen. Sweating a little. A bit sweet, a bit tart, some triple sec, some tequila, all rimmed with li hing mui powder.

Alcohol can make you do stupid things, like declaring undying but unwarranted love. This passion was real, but we are no good for each other, at least, not if I want to do things like drive a car and hold a job. Goodbye, my darling.

Info: Mexico restaurant, 1247 N. School St., Honolulu

Shimazu Shave Ice

Shimazu's three li-hing combo contains pickled mango li hing.
Shimazu’s three li-hing combo contains pickled mango li hing. Catharine Hamm

I later found solace in more shave ice, this time at Shimazu Store, 3111 Castle St., Honolulu, where parking is much easier than at its 330 N. School St. location.

Going in, I knew the serving size was big, but the children’s portion was about the size of a baby’s head, and I couldn’t finish it.

I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to, especially when shave ice maker Lydia Kim suggested what turned out to be the trifecta of treats: My $4.50 ice was flavored with syrups of li hing, li hing apple and li hing pickled mango, which sounded, frankly, awful.

I couldn’t quite fathom how the pickled part could improve a shave ice, but it did.

No lip puckering, just sweet, chilled deliciousness as it slid down my grateful gullet.

Info: Shimazu Store, 3111 Castle St., and Shimazu Shave Ice 330 N. School St., Honolulu

This was the end of the trail for me. I ran out of time before I ran out of treats to try. But I did bring home some li hing powder, and there is this cookie recipe that is calling my name.

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