WRITTEN BY MELISSA CHANG
AN AUTHENTIC TAKE ON HAWAII THROUGH IMMIGRATED CULTURE
ASK ANYONE WHO GREW UP in Hawaii what they love about crack seed, and the salivary glands at the back of their jawlines will react with a quick, strong tingling as they remember their favorite, small-kid-time treat.
Rock salt plum! Lemon peel! Honey ginger! And across the board, everyone will have an opinion about the tart and super salty li hing mui. The funny thing is, very few people know what the specific “crack seed” is anymore.
Here’s a quick history lesson on this favorite local treat: Li hing mui (旅行梅) means “traveling plum,” which was the perfect thing to take on a long trip across the Pacific Ocean. These preserved fruits — particularly li hing mui — were brought to Hawaii in the mid-1800s by immigrant workers from Zhongshan, China.
Although li hing mui is dried to the point that each one resembles a rock, most of the other preserved fruits are moist or soft. In one preparation, the seed of the fruit is cracked open to enhance the sweet and salty flavors of the syrup it is soaked in. This is the original version of “crack seed,” which is rarely, if ever, sold anymore — probably because it could potentially injure your mouth if you don’t eat it carefully.
When it was widely available, crack seed was weighed and served in brown paper bags. Snackers would eat the meat of the dried fruit, then suck on the seeds and seed fragments, then turn the paper bags inside out to enjoy the sticky flavored syrup left behind. (The emergence of plastic bags was a much cleaner alternative.)
Although Chinese candy stores sold every kind of Asian preserved fruit imaginable, including crack seed, the term “crack seed” came to be the general term for anything sold in there. These treasured local snacks have evolved over the years, but Hawaii’s craving for that flavor profile has not. In fact, it’s amazing to see what big business these humble treats have become.
Through high school and college, I worked at what was then one of the oldest crack seed stores (and an original Ala Moana Center tenant), Crack Seed Center. If you were around in the 1980s, you might have seen me amidst the 50 or so glass jars filled with every variety of the preserved, dried fruits: about a dozen different kinds of wet and dry li hing mui, a dozen gingers, three kinds of rock salt plum, wet and dry lemon peel, several versions of shredded mango and mango seed, even a few different presentations of olives. We even had rare, special items like baby seed, apple seed, cherry seed, kam cho mui (aficionados will recognize it as the one that looks like horse poop) and, yes, even traditional crack seed.
The dry seeds tend to be much saltier than all the rest, cured in licorice and a blend of salt, sugar and other unknown spices to create unique sensations of sweet, sweet-sour, or extra salty.
The wet seeds tend to be sweeter, with a more jammy profile. True old school seed shops will add simple syrup to kick up the sugar flavor, or salt — preferably rock salt — to offer a more salty-sweet plum with crunch.
If you’re new to crack seed, I usually recommend you start with the milder wet ones and work your way up to the ones with more concentrated flavors. If you start with li hing mui, you may feel like you’re eating pure salt.
Due to the extreme salty, sour, or sweet sensations, many people use crack seeds in home remedies when sick. The most common one is li hing mui or lemon peel for sore threats, as the salt helps to soothe the scratchiness. Many of my customers swore by eating red cured peaches with brandy when dealing with a cold, but I usually cut up a preserved lemon and throw it into hot tea.
The seeds are typically shipped from Asia in 25-pound bags. Back then, the li hing mui bags would always have a lot of the salt, sugar and spices at the bottom. My coworkers and I used to save the powder to add custom touches to our rock salt plums, apricots and mangoes, as well as for kakimochi upon request.
It was probably this unique touch that made the Crack Seed Center seeds much more delicious. Actor Robert Conrad, when in Hawaii filming “Jake and the Fat Man,” would often send his assistant to buy five pounds of rock salt plum #85 at a time — his favorite munchies between takes.
We also experimented with li hing powder on our own snacks, as an exclusive perk for people who worked in the store. Oddly enough, we never thought to market the intensely salty powder as a separate ingredient.
You can imagine our surprise — and regret — many years later, when some genius figured out how to sell that precious powder, even to the point of grinding li hing mui seeds to make more of it. Today, you can find the powder sold in bags at stores, used as an enhancer for almost everything, including: salad dressing, margaritas, fruit sprinkles, cookies, barbecue ribs, gummy candies and shave ice. Mixed with simple syrup, it makes an amazing and addicting addition to the popular Icee drinks.
The combination of old school snacks and contemporary snacks continues with a recently booming trend in mincing dried lemon peel and sprinkling it on gummy candies. Lemon peel is also salty, but has a milder flavor than li hing mui, plus the citrus essence.
Lemon peel on candy has become such a huge trend that even the wholesalers can’t keep up with the demand. Seed City in Pearlridge is often sold out of lemon peel. Sing Cheong Yuan in Chinatown, which also owns the Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki, sells bags of lemon peel pre-minced so you can sprinkle it on your favorite confection to your liking.
My niece, Morgen, loves to eat her li hing mui in a different way now: Big Island Candies in Hilo takes the seeds and dips them halfway in chocolate, which helps to temper the initial extreme saltiness and balance the flavor as you chew the meat of the fruit.
One of my new obsessions is getting a bag of kakimochi pre-mixed with li hing powder from Aloha Gourmet Products (sold in stores like Longs, as well as online), crushing it coarsely, and sprinkling it on poke — any kind of poke. It sounds odd, but it works. The subtle crunch of kakimochi adds texture to the fish, as well as an infusion of comforting flavors from my childhood.
Prepackaged seeds can be found at grocery and drugstores all throughout Hawaii. For a true crack seed store experience though, go to a store that scoops your order straight out of the jar. [ eHI ]