Nothing packs a salty, tangy, addictive punch quite like li hing mui. The beloved snack of generations of local kids has imbued fond childhood memories of camp-outs and beach days with the indelible flavor of the dried mui.
No doubt these recollections have fueled the current popularity of li hing mui powder that has been sprinkled on everything from apples and pineapple to cookie dough and arare.
“Remember small-kid days, when we put salt on apple or dipped green mango in shoyu and vinegar? It’s the same effect when you sprinkle li hing mui powder. It enhances the taste of whatever you put it on. It’s a flavor builder,” says chef Alan Wong, whose li hing mui salad dressing is a hit at his restaurants.
“Li hing mui rounds out the flavor; it balances it,” agrees Josh Lanthier-Welch, a former chef and one of the creators of OnoPops. He uses li hing mui powder in his own marinade, barbecue and dressing recipes, and in his all-natural popsicles that are based on the Mexican paleta and made with fresh fruits and dairy products.
Local boys Josh and his brother, Joe Welch, came up with a pineapple li hing version of OnoPops that’s proved to be one of the most popular of their 37 flavors.
“No matter how many we take to the farmers market, we always sell out,” he says of their booth at Kapiolani Community College’s Saturday market.
Yet the flavor initially posed a problem to the brothers, who are committed to using all-natural ingredients. Li hing mui has long been made with artificial sugar and coloring.
“We found a powder without aspartame (a chemical sweetener), but there was red food coloring,” Lanthier-Welch says.
The brothers used that powder for their test batches of pineapple li hing, and when the flavor proved to be popular, they set to work creating an all-natural powder. Though the recipe they came up with tasted pretty good, it lacked a vital component: the plum.
But as of mid-March the brothers’ concoction has become a true li hing mui, plum and all. Grandpa Mui’s All Natural Li Hing Mui Powder features plum powder from California, licorice as a sweetener and cactus-derived red carmine for color. Five-spice powder, salt and superfine sugar round out the recipe.
The powder is available exclusively at Whole Foods Market through mid-June. A 2-ounce package sells for $4.99.
Whole Foods requires the products it sells to be all-natural, says Claire Sullivan, the market’s coordinator of purchasing and public affairs in Hawaii. That means no artificial sweeteners or colors.
“We were looking for products prior to opening, and we knew Hawaii folks love li hing mui. We were disappointed to see that there was no natural version available,” Sullivan recalls.
“When we met Joe and Josh, we were excited about their popsicles. They’ve done a stellar job of using locally grown ingredients. But we were disappointed we wouldn’t be able to carry the pineapple li hing flavor. It’s not surprising, with their own commitment to local and healthy, that they’ve come up with this powder. And we thought it would be good to sell in and of itself.”
The essential plum flavor for li hing mui is rooted in the tannins of the mei apricot plum, which when combined with salt and sugar create a master base for future batches. Salt draws out that flavor and sugar absorbs it, so it actually takes several generations of the recipe for the full flavor of the product to take shape.
The concept is similar to master sauces in which ingredients are added to the original sauce, and the pot never goes empty.
“It keeps paying forward into another batch,” Lanthier-Welch says.
That each generation of powder tastes different is common with li hing mui, according to Wong.
“No two are alike — some are sweet, some are salty. There are as many varieties of li hing mui powder as there are li hing mui seed,” he says.
To address the discrepancies when cooking with the powder, the cook “must understand the balance of salty, sweet and sour,” Wong adds. “If a powder is too sweet, lemon juice might balance it out. If it’s too salty, add water. If it’s too sour, add sugar.”
The brothers call their current powder the “1.0 version.” They’re not satisfied with using plum powder from California, referring back to their mission to use local or organic. “If it’s not local, it’s gotta be organic,” both men have reiterated.
In working toward that goal, the brothers are planning to replace the powder with organic ume plum they bring in from Japan for their ume OnoPop. The ume, harvested from 100-year-old trees, are primarily sold to top sushi restaurants. The duo will dehydrate the plum and grind their own powder.
A longer-term goal is to access ume from an orchard in Hilo.
“From what I hear, we gotta get in line,” says Lanthier-Welch. “A lot of chefs are interested. We all want to start playing with that product.”
The duo’s focus on local and organic is based in their commitment to sustainability.
“It’s the locavore principle of leaving less of a carbon footprint,” Lanthier-
Welch says. “Economically, local products that look expensive now will be the cheaper product later when oil (prices) rise. That will be the tipping point for Hawaii to become self-sufficient. For now it’s all about baby steps, supporting the farmers and educating the market.”
Sweet Sour Crispy Pork Belly with Pineapple Gastrique
“The Blue Tomato,” by Alan Wong
>> Pork belly:
2 pounds pork belly
1 bay leaf
12 black peppercorns
1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
>> Sauce and garnish:
6 tablespoons Pineapple Gastrique (recipe follows)
1/4 cup Carrot, Daikon, Green Apple Slaw (recipe follows)
1/4 cup fresh pineapple, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
To prepare pork belly: Place pork belly in large saucepan and add enough water to cover completely. Bring water to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add bay leaf, peppercorns and garlic. Cover saucepan and simmer until pork is tender, about 3 hours.
Transfer pork to baking pan, skin side down. Place another baking pan of same size on top of pork and place weight on top of it. Place pork in the refrigerator overnight or until it is completely chilled (weight on top will ensure the pork remains flat as it cools).
Once pork belly is chilled, remove from pan and cut off skin, leaving in one piece as much as possible with 1/4 inch of fat still left on the skin. Cut pork belly into 1-by-1-by-2-inch rectangles.
Crisp the pork skin: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with a Silpat. Scrape extra fat off skin and discard. Lay skin on Silpat, fat side down. Place another Silpat on top of skin to keep it flat. Bake 30 to 45 minutes or until skin is crispy. Cut immediately into rectangles slightly larger than pork belly pieces.
For plating, add a little oil to small sauté pan over medium heat. Brown pieces of pork belly on all sides. Make sure center of the pork has been heated through. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
Place pork belly onto plate. Arrange slaw and watercress on top of pork belly and top watercress with the pork skin. Place the pineapple on the side. Drizzle tablespoon of Pineapple Gastrique onto serving plate. Serve at once. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 700 calories, 57 g fat, 21 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 31 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 28 g sugar, 15 g protein
Carrot, Daikon, Green Apple Slaw
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1-by-1/2-by-2-inch piece carrot, peeled and cut into 2-inch julienne
1-by-1/2-by-2-inch piece daikon, peeled and cut into 2-inch julienne
1-by-3/4-by-2-inch piece Granny Smith apple, cut into 2-inch julienne
In bowl, combine vinegar and sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add carrot and daikon and marinate 20 minutes. Add apple and marinate another 5 minutes.
Drain pickling liquid. Makes 3/4 cup.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 1 tablespoon serving): 25 calories, no fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, 6 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 5 g sugar, no protein
3 cups 1-inch cubes pineapple, about half of a 4-pound pineapple
2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons (17 grams) kudzu starch
1-1/2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon li hing mui powder
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Place pineapple in blender and purée until smooth; makes about 2 cups. Transfer purée to saucepan and add vinegar and sugar.
Place over medium heat and cook until the mixture is reduced by half. Pour liquid through a fine sieve and return to the saucepan; discard solids.
In small bowl, whisk together kudzu starch and water to form a slurry.
Place pineapple liquid over medium heat and bring to boil. Add slurry and boil until thick. Remove from heat and cool.
Add li hing mui powder and cider vinegar. Blend well. Makes 16 ounces.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 1-ounce serving): 110 calories, no fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 28 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 27 g sugar, no protein
5-Spice Chicken Panzanella with Granny Smiths and Li Hing Crouton
Courtesy Josh Lanthier-Welch
1-1/2 cups shredded five-spice chicken* (see below)
1 small loaf sourdough (or 1/2 large), torn into 1/2-inch chunks
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons li hing mui powder
2 Granny Smith apples
Juice of 1 lemon, divided
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon shoyu
1 tablespoon salad oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bunch hearty salad green such as arugula or mizuna
*Use leftovers of your favorite five-spice chicken recipe. Or, to make five-spice chicken in a hurry, shred a cooked rotisserie chicken from the market and season with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon five-spice powder. Add a teaspoon of sesame oil, toss, and proceed with recipe.
Melt butter in heavy skillet. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Add half of li hing mui to melted butter.
Toast bread in li hing butter, tossing to coat completely, and allowing croutons to brown lightly. Transfer to cookie sheet, sprinkle remaining li hing evenly, and bake 7 to 9 minutes, until brown and crisp but not burnt.
To assemble salad, cut and core apples into 1/8-inch slices. Place in salad bowl, toss with half of lemon juice and salt and pepper. Combine remaining lemon juice, sesame and salad oils, shoyu and pinch sugar. Whisk to make a light emulsion.
Add chicken, croutons and greens to salad bowl, toss, and drizzle dressing over the top. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 420 calories, 18 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,000 mg sodium, 47 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 13 g sugar, 19 g protein
Li Hing-Orange Pork Stir-Fry
Courtesy Josh Lanthier-Welch
1 pork tenderloin, cut into slices for stir-frying, and seasoned with salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small piece ginger, grated
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 small bulb fennel, julienned
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 bunch green onions, cut white part once lengthwise and green into fine chiffonade
1/4 cup Xiaoxing wine, sake, or dry sherry
Juice of 3 local oranges or tangerines, strained
1 tablespoon soy sauce, preferably Chinese dark
2 tablespoons li hing mui powder
To prepare sauce, combine citrus, soy sauce and li hing mui powder, and whisk to incorporate. Set aside.
Toss pork in corn starch, shaking off excess, and reserving the leftover for thickening.
Heat wok or cast-iron pan until very hot. Add peanut oil; add garlic and ginger. Wait 10 seconds, then add pork. Stir-fry until pork begins to brown, then add bell peppers and fennel. Cook 2 to 3 minutes and add peas. Add white part of green onion.
Moisten reserved cornstarch with a few drops of water, add to sauce and pour over the stir-fry. Allow mixture to boil and thicken, then finish with Xiaoxing (or sake or sherry).
Cook 1 more minute. Transfer to serving platter and garnish with onion. Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 4 servings): 370 calories, 15 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium, 31 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 28 g protein
Li Hing Ricotta Zeppoli
Courtesy Josh Lanthier-Welch
A grown-up cousin of the li hing malasada, this is an update of one of our mom’s best dinner party dessert recipes from the ’70s.
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Peanut or canola oil for frying
Li hing mui powder for tossing
In bowl, mix together ricotta, eggs and sugar until smooth.
In another bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Beat flour mixture into cheese mixture to form a smooth, thick batter.
Pour oil into pan, about 1 ½ inches, at medium-high heat and bring oil to 350 degrees.
Drop dough by tablespoonful into oil and fry until golden brown on all sides.
Drain briefly on paper towels and toss with li hing mui powder. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: (based on 8 servings and not including salt to taste): 200 calories, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 450 mg sodium, 13 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 9 g sugar, 6 g protein