Most of us have eaten Li Hing Mui all our lives, but have you ever wondered just how it got its name? It’s the phonetic pronunciation of the Chinese characters 旅行梅 (leoi5 hang4 mui4), and its literal translation is “traveling plum.” Most early Chinese immigrants to Hawaii came from the Zhongshan province of Guangdong, so it makes sense that Li Hing Mui is neither Mandarin or Cantonese but Zhongshanhua.
Outside of Zhongshan, Cantonese people call preserved plums 話梅 (hua4mei2). This translates to “talking plum.” If you’re ever invited to a Chinese person’s house to play cards or mahjong they will offer you tea and a handful of dried plums or sunflower seeds to eat while talking story and hanging out. Don’t be disgusted by the spitting out of cracked seeds on to the tabletop. They’ll be cleaned up before dinner, which you’ll hopefully be invited to eat.
Preserved fruits have a long history in not only China, but also throughout Asia and the rest of the world. When you travel by foot or horse over long distances, it’s important to have food sources that won’t go bad. Salted, dried fruits last just about forever and can add flavor to bland foods like rice. In addition, foods like Li Hing helped travelers to replenish salt lost through perspiration and also reduced muscle cramps.
In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants who came to work on the plantations in Hawaii brought Li hing with them. Over the years the taste of the plums changed to fit local taste buds. You’d be hard-pressed to find most of the crack seed we eat in Hawaii at a store in China. We’ve also found newer and tastier ways to eat Li Hing, such as Li Hing Margaritas or Li Hing covered pineapple. If you have an unusual way to use Li Hing, please leave us a comment!