What is “crack seed”, one of Hawaii’s favorite snacks?

When visitors walk into a crack seed store, they are greeted by a dizzying array of colors in the snacks ranging from gummies to seaweed-wrapped rice crackers, the buttery smell of popcorn and the rumble of a shaved ice machine.

For newcomers, it’s a feast for the senses. But for many locals, these stores are beloved classics, and the snacks they sell are childhood staples.

The name “crack seed” comes from the process of preserving li hing mui, or Hawaiian sour plum; over time, his pit cracks. The addictive flavor of the fruit is used in everything from sore throat remedies to ice cream toppings. “Crack seed” has become shorthand for the range of dried and preserved international snacks found in these stores.

immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal and beyond – many who came to work on sugar, coffee and pineapple plantations in the 19th century – helped make crack a standard in Hawaiian cuisine. These immigrants stayed and intermarried, including with native Hawaiians, making Hawaii is home to the largest number of multiracial people in the USA

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It’s this unique mix of people that crack seed is so special to. For generations of Hawaiians, these specialty shops are a way to reconnect with their roots and pass on a delicious tradition to their children and grandchildren.

Although crack seeds can now be found in Hawai’i at major chains from Walmart to 7-Eleven, mom and pop stores have fought to survive in the pandemic and continue generations-old traditions as growers crack seeds come and go and tastes change.

For travelers who want a taste of real Hawaiian life, crack seed shops provide a glimpse into the immigrant culture that makes the islands so deep. Visiting these stores benefits local and family businesses and allows travelers to enjoy a fun and distinctive mix of goodies, perhaps by the beach on a weekend afternoon, as the locals do.

The story of a sweetness

In Hawai’i, the sour plum of Prunus mume tree-see me in Cantonese – evolved into li hing mui, marked by its reddish tint. They are marinated in a mixture of licorice, salt and sugar, the result is a distinct sour flavor that mixes salty and sweet. They can be found whole, sliced, or dried and ground into a powder to sprinkle on gummies or ice cream and fresh fruit.

In Cantonese, li hing mui means “traveling plum”. It’s an appropriate name, given its history in Hawai’i.

According to University of Hawai’i West Oahu Center for Labor Education and Research. By the 20th century, the plantations, which grew fruits and rice, had actively recruited workers from Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Puerto Rico. When their three- to five-year contracts ended, some plantation workers moved to the mainland, but many decided to stay in Hawai’i and put down roots. The plantation-era society and the fusion of cultures was unlike any other in the United States.

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“There were people who ended up leaving the plantation and going to places like Chinatown, where the land value was affordable, so it was easy to start a business,” says Franklin Ng, professor of anthropology at Fresno State University. Ng, who is Chinese, grew up near Honolulu’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the country. “So you had Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino businesses alongside Hawaiian businesses in the Chinatown area. Many were of the same economic class, so they learned not to waste food and to share things with each other. Li-hing was a small slice of comfort food after a long day that was inexpensive.

A family tradition of crack seeds

The first thing visitors may notice at The Rainbow Crack Seed store in the sleepy town of Kaneohe on Oahu is the unmistakable flavor of fresh popcorn.

Here they serve it “hurricane style” – mixed with furikake (seaweed seasoning), a rare (small rice crackers) and butter. The store also sells shaved ice with over 25 flavors to sweeten the frozen dessert, including guava and passion fruit.

Cramped rows of bagged treats include sweet white li hing muipineapple sour belts, dried lemon zest and cola bottle gummies (coated with li-hing powder). In the back of the one-room store, shelves of giant jars are filled with floating fruits, like pickled plums, mangoes and sour flat cherries.

Rainbow Crack Seed tells the story of the Ha family across five decades and three generations. The story begins with Serena Ha, who moved to Hawai’i from Seoul, Korea in the early 1970s. She and other family members were interred in Kaneohe Hawaiian Memorial Park, located across the street. of the shop.

Current Rainbow owner Christy Ha, 65, recalls the role stores like hers played in Aloha Fridays— when locals wear Hawaiian-print shirts to celebrate the end of the workweek. In 1982, the song “Aloha Friday” could be heard on all radio stations, with Kimo Kahoano singing, “It’s Aloha Friday, no work until Monday”. Families stocked up on crack seed snacks to eat while spending the weekend at the beach.

When the pandemic close businesses across the state in the spring of 2020, the Ha family feared Rainbow Crack Seed would be shut down forever. In the fall of 2020, Hawai’i suffered among the the highest rates in the country of businesses have closed, and a month later, 25% of all local businesses in the state have been permanently closed.

Although tourism to the islands has slowed to a crawl during the pandemic, most of Rainbow Crack Seed’s customers have always been locals. For families hungry for a taste of normalcy and nostalgia, the store’s treats became a treat in an era when people weren’t allowed to beaches or hiking trails. “Especially during this kind of confusing and somewhat depressing time for many of us, we felt like it was our duty to serve up the taste of happiness and joy with locals’ favorite snacks,” says Julie Ha, Christy’s niece.

The Ha family reopened for the summer 2020 season and has remained open ever since, despite modification of restrictions as COVID-19 numbers fluctuated. Wanting to operate as normally as possible, the Ha family have invested in sanitization and safety measures to keep themselves and their customers safe. They have shortened store opening hours but are still open every day, limiting the number of customers inside at one time to follow social distancing rules.

In the third year of the pandemic, Rainbow Crack Seed found itself in full swing. Now the family plans to expand their unique storefront to other locations across the state. The pandemic has also prompted them to switch to selling customizable gift boxes online. Although there are fewer crack seed shops left on the islands, the survival of this shop proves the strength of tradition.

Memories through the generations

Crack Seed helps residents connect to their family stories, from sharing the excitement of driving to the store to the joy of bringing home a favorite treat and enjoying it together. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, changing tastes of children, and the availability of classic snacks, crack seeds continue to provide intergenerational bonds and a sense of belonging.

Local boss Philip K. Ho, 90, likes more traditional Chinese crack-seed snacks, like canned fruit. Born to a Chinese immigrant mother and a local Chinese plantation worker father, Ho remembers moving to Kaimuki in eastern Oahu as a child. His descendants still live there today.

His grandchildren also grew up eating crack seeds, although Ho’s daughter Renee Tengan, 55, says her children were drawn to gummies and other sweets that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Renee’s son Jaren Tengan, 27, is the fourth generation in her family and is of Chinese and Japanese descent.

Every Friday, as a child, he and his brothers shared a pound of kakimochisoy sauce flavored rice crackers, and he was trying to convince his mother of a coke mixed with li-hing juice for an extra kick. He remembers visiting his grandparents on Sundays and sucking the sticky flesh of a rock salt plum while the adults “talked about history”, local slang for chatter.

In 2012, he moved to Washington State for college. When it was time to return to the mainland, his mother would fill large bags with kakimochi, li-hing gummies and dried cuttlefish in his suitcase so he can take a piece home.

All three generations of Tengans found themselves on Oahu during the pandemic, balancing safety with in-person work at their family business, an auto shop. Trying to maintain some semblance of normal life, they continued to support their favorite local businesses, like the dim sum restaurant down the street and the crack seed shop the family went to when the boys were young.

Although li-hing gummies and similar snacks are readily available at gas stations and pharmacies, going to a crack seed store for Tengans – and many other longtime residents – is a heartwarming visit and a reminder of family ties.

Kathleen Wang is a Honolulu-based writer. You can find it on Twitter.

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