Melissa MacEwen | The Roaming Fork
Some sweet, some sour
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 01:03
Li hing mui and its derivative, li hing powder, looks fairly benign when packaged — it comes as either a red or taupe-colored fruit that can be eaten on its own or a red powder that is sprinkled on fruit and sour gummies, added to shaved ice or used as a replacement for the salt on margarita glasses. But that’s before you’ve tried it. No one ever forgets their first time eating li hing.
Li hing mui is so flavorful, you see, that it literally seems to draw the moisture from your mouth. It’s somehow both delicious and repulsive, with its blend of sweet, salty and sour. It is unrelenting. In theory, li hing mui isn’t particularly threatening — it is simply a plum that has been pickled, and then sweetened with either aspartame or sugar — but in practice, it’s a taste that can only be deemed “acquired.”
I first tried li hing mui when I went to Hawaii last summer, but I was eager to try it again. I vividly remember wandering around Oahu with my friend Anique, getting sunburnt and thirstier by the minute as I snacked on li hing mui. The plums have a cultish following in Hawaii, since first being imported from China around 1900 by a man named Yee Sheong. “Li hing mui” means traveling plum in Chinese — though whether this refers to li hing as an imported food or as a food that’s good to eat while on the go, I’m not entirely sure.
As I had recently been experimenting with Jell-O, I decided that I would prepare li hing in two ways for this column: sprinkled over fruit and then sprinkled over fruit Jell-O.
Though Shaw’s has an ever-impressive selection of Jell-O flavors to choose from, I decided to make things a bit more exciting by making my own. Were you aware that with a bit of plain gelatin and some fruit juice, you can make literally any Jell-O flavor you want? The world is an exciting place, friends! Tough decisions were made, but I finally tore myself away from the Ceres juice rack long enough to decide on mango, pineapple, lychee and coconut juice, as li hing is most commonly served with mangoes, pineapples and apples.
Making artsy Jell-O was precisely as fun as you would expect it to be (i.e. awesome), and I ended up with three main varieties — mango/pineapple/coconut, lychee and lychee/mango/pineapple. I may or may not be eating Jell-O for the rest of the semester.
Served with li hing powder, the Jell-O was pretty good, but I wasn’t really blown away. It might have been because I used un-concentrated fruit juice with no sugar added, but my Jell-O was only mildly flavorful. The li hing definitely gave it a healthy kick, though, and it looked nice sprinkled on top — sort of like a steak rub for Jell-O.
I had been skeptical about sprinkling li hing powder on fruit — why would I add sugar powder to fruit? Much less a weird aspartame-based sugar powder? — but my doubts were proven groundless as soon as I tried my first slice of li hing-sprinkled-apple. I was stunned. If Zeus himself had thrown an apple from the heavens, it wouldn’t have been tastier than this. Somehow, the apple seemed to mute the most pungent flavors of the li hing, while perfectly complementing the fruit’s natural flavor. Far from tasting salty, the apple literally tasted like candy. The grapefruit, on the other hand, tasted like battery acid.
Though my first encounter with li hing was rather sour, I have since changed my mind. I would happily snack on the travelling plum again in the future.
Melissa MacEwen is a junior majoring in biology and English. She can be reached at email@example.com.