Preserving Culture

The old Hawaiian lady smiled wistfully as Mr. Young tonged her order of wet li hing mango out of a massive jar. When he put them on the scale, the scarlet slices glistened in the afternoon light.

“Every time I come here,” the lady said in a strong pidgin accent, “it’s like I goin’ back to old-time Hawaii.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by customers a thousand times a day in the old store. But, if a visit to this Oahu institution, known simply as the Crack Seed Store, is a dose of nostalgia for locals, for visitors it’s a charming glimpse into the real Hawaii.

Crack seed, fruit preserved in a concoction of sugar, salt, licorice, star anise and li hing, a tart red powder made from the pits of plums, was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago. Ancient Chinese warriors are said to have carried crack seed under the saddle of their horses. But despite its immigrant past, the crack seed store is thoroughly Hawaiian.

Pre-packaged crack seed can be found in almost any supermarket on Oahu, but if clients are eager for an authentic crack seed experience, encourage them to visit Mr. Young’s pleasantly grubby shop in the old neighborhood of Kaimuki. Inside, hundreds of great apothecary jars line the shelves, each filled with a different variety of crack seed: rock salt plum, candied ginger, li hing mango, sweet sour lemon. The atmosphere is like an old-fashioned candy store, a place where grandparents and children both feel at home.
When your clients are ready to order, Mr. Young shuffles out from behind his battered counter and scoops the sticky morsels into little plastic bags. The sheer number of options can be daunting, and even old hands often walk out with four or five varieties.

A more modern version of the crack seed store can be found among the luxury outlets at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center. The Crack Seed Center is a bright, clean shop with an enormous selection of traditional fruits, crackers and dried seafood. Its central location makes it tremendously popular with locals, and a squadron of young women in red smocks are quick to offer their help.

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