Crack seed in Hawaii: A love letter

Crack seed is a Hawaii snack item with a taste that is, well, acquired. Generally speaking, it is a Chinese food item, imported with Chinese sugar plantation workers who arrived in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. Crack seed is essentially bite-sized preserved fruits, plums being most common.

There is almost no end to the varieties of crack seed available to Hawaii consumers. And while prepackaged varieties of crack seed are available everywhere from the local 7-11 store to whole sections of Longs Drugs, there remains a handful of crack seed stores that cater exclusively to the particular tastes of Hawaii residents young and old.

Salty, sweet, or sour, or any combination of those flavor profiles are what set crack seed apart from mainstream snacks like pretzels, say, or pistachio nuts. Chief among these flavors and certainly the most popular is Li Hing, which is a powdered mix of dried plum peels, salt, sugar, licorice (and sometimes – eep! – aspartame).

The Li Hing flavor, some may say, has been culturally appropriated into margarita and martini recipes. Chefs experiment with the flavor, perhaps glazing a duck in a Li Hing reduction or incorporating it into a vinaigrette for a snobby salad.

Crack seed

These erudite applications aside, for many in Hawaii (and particularly for Hawaii residents away from home) Li Hing and any and all varieties of crack seed are truly a comfort food. It is safe to say that any care package from Hawaii will include some crack seed along with staples like laulau, mochi crunch and dried cuttlefish.

I’m speaking from experience when I say that crack seed is a comfort food for us here. This is because of the memories we associate with trips to the crack seed store. To a Hawaii youngster raised on crack seed, those 5-gallon glass jars at the local crack seed store were not full of food, but of treasure. The smell was and is sweetly divine.

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The proprietors were (and are) generally old folks, referred to reverentially as “auntie” or “uncle.” They knew you by name and your crack seed of choice. They knew the little league team you played on. They knew your preferred mix of Coke and Strawberry Slurpee. Every neighborhood crack seed store filled at the end of every school day with harried store owners trying to sell product while keeping an eye on rascals with sticky fingers. Everyone’s fingers were sticky when they were eventually chased out. “You bought, already! Go do your homework!”

We old-ish residents all remember now-defunct Yick Lung crack seed brand products. It was founded in Hawaii by Chinese immigrant Yee Sheong in the early 1900s. Among the flower lei that draped high school graduates in the 70s and 80s there was always a string of Yick Lung treats.

More crack seed selections at C-Mui Center in Chinatown.

Most everyone who grew up in Hawaii has memories of sitting on a street corner, sucking on a lemon embedded with a Li Hing Mui seed. Two if you were lucky. Crack seed was lucre, to be hoarded and begrudgingly shared. It was a bargaining chip. “You like ride my bike? Three Li Hing Mui, den!”

I’ve tried to share the joy of crack seed with the kids of my mainland haole friends and family. I’ve failed almost categorically to no avail. “It looks like a salted turd!” I get that they don’t get it. It’s uniquely Hawaii to understand the simple pleasure of savoring a meaty Rock Salt Plum. Or nibbling at a flattened bit of salty-sweet dried and preserved lemon peel. You have to know to know.

Here are my suggested crack seed stores to know for interested visitors:

C-Mui Center

1111 Bethel Street, Hon 96813

808.536.4712

Crack Seed Store

1156 Koko Head Ave, Hon 96816

808.737.1022