Sun, 03 Dec 2023

Cracking open a bag of a classic Hawaii snack

22 Sep 2023, 21:30 GMT+10

HONOLULU (CN) - It's set up like an old-timey candy store, but the glass jars here aren't filled with taffy, peppermints or gumballs.

Instead, the jars at the Crack Seed Store, a bustling snack shop on Honolulu's southside, display an array of preserved fruits, rice crackers and other local Hawaii snacks. These snacks would be hard to find on the mainland, and even in Hawaii they're increasingly rare.

The choices here are almost overwhelming. There's standard plum, along with ginger, lemon, lychee and countless other fruits, each preserved in various sweet, salty and even spicy flavors.

I don't often come to the Crack Seed Store, but the snacks they sell - food I've grown up eating - still feel familiar. Where grandmothers on the mainland may hand out hard candies to their grandchildren, my po-po would instead shake out li hing mui from jars, telling my sister and I to be careful of the seed in the middle.

 Li hing mui - a salty, sweet and tart dried plum - has become one of my tried-and-true favorites. Dried mango is another. Still, with so many jars lining the walls of the cramped store, all colorful and inviting, it's hard not to want to stray.

Noticing my hesitation, a woman behind the counter asks if I'd like to taste test anything. I select a couple pieces of ginger. She fishes them straight from a jar.

The honey flavor is popular, she tells me - but she thinks I could brave the spicy version. Each piece has a distinct sour tang, but I'm not sure this shopkeep is right about my tastes. The hit of the ginger, combined with spice from the marinade it's been steeping in, may be too much for me.

The food I'm trying is "crack seed" - a Hawaii snack with serious flavor and a silly name. A Hawaii take on a classic Cantonese preparation, it's a window into the unique history and food culture of this island state.

Some say "crack seed" gets its name from the addictive properties of crack cocaine. In fact, it comes from the way cooks crack the seeds of fruit to allow the marinade to penetrate more deeply. That marinade typically includes ingredients like licorice, salt and sugar.

It began as the Cantonese snack see mui, or preserved sour plum. From there, it was a natural jump to pickling different fruits in the same manner. When the snack landed in Hawaii, locals began making their own versions, applying see mui pickling techniques on tropical fruit like mango. 

These days, the distinctive sour candy remains a hit in Hawaii. The Crack Seed Store has been operating for over seventy years, according to Liana Fang, whose family acquired the shop from the original owners in 2020.

Hawaii is well-known for its local cuisine, which draws from the unique blend cultures that settled on the islands from across the Pacific and beyond. 

As immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, and Puerto Rico came to the islands, they brought their food and culture with them. Over time, those cultures and flavors blended together, creating new and distinct Hawaii dishes and traditions.

Typically brought to the islands to work on sugarcane plantations, these immigrants were forced to work alongside each other. Although at first unable to communicate, they later developed a unique pidgin dialect that still influences local conversation today.

Another major part of this exchange was the food - including dishes that evolved from their Asian roots to become some of Hawaii's most popular. Spam musubi evolved from Japanese rice balls, while Chinese char siu bao (steamed pork buns) became manapua, or "tasty meat thing" in Hawaiian.

Malasadas - a Portuguese fried dough similar to doughnuts - became a Hawaii must-try. Poke, a dish of marinated cubed fish, went from a humble Hawaiian-Japanese fusion dish to a mainland favorite, spawning countless poke shops across the United States. As these foods changed to suit local tastes and needs, they became distinct from the food traditions that spawned them, creating whole new Hawaii dishes.

Beyond preserved fruits, The Crack Seed Store also sells other local snacks like arare, a Japanese rice cracker, and other Asian candies.(Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

Crack seed followed a similar trajectory. Chinese immigrants were among the first to begin settling on the islands in the 18th and 19th century, bringing their food traditions with them. Hawaii's Chinatown in Honolulu soon filled with stores selling comfort foods like the unique snack, Franklin Ng, professor of Anthropology at Fresno State University who grew up on Oahu, said in an interview.

"Hawaii is a small place, [and] people tended to get to be close," Ng said. "Japanese knew Chinese, Chinese knew Filipino." There were also Portuguese migrants, native Hawaiians and, later, missionaries and settlers from the mainland United States. 

"Kids tended to share their culture, so crack seed became especially familiar to a whole set of people who lived in Hawaii," Ng said. "It lends itself easily into local culture." Hawaii has lost the intense cultural divisions of the plantation days - and many of these once-distinct food traditions have become everyone's traditions.  

Crack seed may have once been a breakout hit in Hawaii, but these days the snack is less ubiquitous. When Ng was growing up in Honolulu's Chinatown in the 1970s, crack seed was plentiful. Back in the day, he could purchase the snack from roving carts for just a few cents.

Now, it is nearly impossible to find such stalls. Like other Chinatowns across the United States, Hawaii's Chinatown - one of the oldest in the nation - is losing its unique identity, beset by factors like crime and gentrification.

Even larger shops like the Crack Seed Store have become fewer. Convenience and grocery stores do still sell snacks like li hing gummies, arare crackers, haw flakes, dried squid and other local favorites, but the prepackaged bags lack the charm and authenticity of handmade snacks sold out of glass jars.

On the mainland, even places with heavy Chinese immigrant populations aren't necessarily doing crack seed like Hawaii does, Ng says. He thinks Hawaii's history of relative isolation helps explain why.

Crack seed "became kind of a nostalgic thing," as people yearned for "an innocent time when there was less 'mainlandization' of Hawaii," he said. "It used to be [that] Hawaii could never quite get everything exactly like on the mainland." As that changed, people sometimes found themselves missing the old days.

Crack seed also represents a uniquely Cantonese legacy on the islands. The Chinese diaspora in Hawaii is distinctly Southern Chinese, with many immigrants originally hailing from places like Hong Kong and Zhongshan where see mui is more popular.

Take a look around the Crack Seed Store, though, and it's clear that customers aren't all recent migrants from Hong Kong and Zhongshan. 

Instead, the store is packed with locals of all backgrounds - though tourists are less common. They mostly prefer the trendy banana froyo shop next door.

The store is no-frills, with snacks packaged in clear plastic before being weighed and sold in bulk by the pound, half pound or quarter pound. Many customers also exit the shop into the summer sun with a cold Icee in hand. Even that all-American snack can get the crack-seed treatment: Many customers order it with the shop's specialty li hing sauce, made from preserved pickled plums, drizzled on top.

If I could, I'd spend more time trying every flavor, but a line is quickly forming. They crowd the store's already narrow walkway, looking impatient.

There isn't much room inside: The store's counter takes up almost half of the little shop. The rows of glass jars along the walls and the counter limit space even further. I decide that today may not be the day for exploration, and I quickly make my final choices, settling on li hing mui, a personal favorite, plus the honey ginger that the woman behind the counter convinced me to try.

As I place my order, she peers at me, apparently assessing my Chineseness. She asks if I speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Cantonese, I tell her.

We chat a little in Cantonese as she scoops up and seals my order. How nice it is, she comments, that I can still speak Cantonese despite growing up in Honolulu. Her son gave up on Cantonese like many who grow up here, she complains - but at least he's studying Chinese history in college. She's been sending him care packages of local snacks like crack seed, little things to remind him where he came from.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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