The Sweet (& Sour) Life
story by Dennis Hollier
The kid comes into the Crack Seed Store with an order that he can’t fill in a standard grocery store. “Mixed arare and li hing mui sauce,” he tells the owner, K.P. Young.
“In separate bags, though—I don’t like the cracker getting all soggy.”
Mr. Young has heard this order before. It’s a house specialty at his Kaimuki store, invented years ago by one of his high-school-age customers. He goes to a large jar at the front of the store and measures a quarter- pound of arare into a small plastic bag. Then, out of the wet li hing mui jar at the counter, he gingerly ladles some of the sweet juice into another bag. “No need seal ’em,” the kid says. “I’m going to eat them soon.” As Mr. Young puts twist ties on the bags, the kid turns to me and says, “That’s how you know you’re a regular: When you know you can mix ’em up.”
Those of us raised in Hawai‘i can be forgiven for thinking that a visit to the old crack seed store, with its great glass jars of preserved fruits, candies, crackers and dried cuttlefish, is the quintessential Island experience. It’s certainly part of our heritage. I remember as a child digging greedily in little brown paper bags filled with wet li hing mui—shriveled plums preserved in a sauce of sugar, licorice and salt—then sucking on the bags when I was done to get all the juice. How could these memories be more Hawaiian?
But even the names of my favorites—li hing mui; umebashi (pickled Japanese plums); or tako (dried, smoked octopus)—belie any native roots. Crack seed came to the islands in the pockets of immigrants. And even today, most of what one buys here is imported from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. Only one local company, Jade Foods in Waipahu, actually makes crack seed in Hawai‘i.
Anywhere you find crack seed, you’ll get a whiff of nostalgia. Jade Foods is no different: Although its current location is in a modern warehouse, everything about how the company works seems quaint, old-fashioned … and complicated. The ingredients for more than fifty types of crack seed line the shelves at the back of the warehouse: barrels of dried salted plums and apricots from Jade’s orchard in California; from Taiwan, a huge crate filled with licorice twigs, which taste faintly sweet when raw; boxes of star anise; barrels of sugar and aspartame; and jugs of vanilla, orange crème and lemon crème.
SzeMong Siu, the head cook from China, has been making crack seed at Jade Foods for more than fifteen years. When I arrive, he’s in the back with his helpers, Willy and Alfred, preparing juicy racks of wet salted plum for the drying oven. They work in half-ton batches, but the process is all done by hand: Home cooking, as done by giants.
In the corner, two gigantic pots—each more than four feet across and four feet deep—simmer on great burners. In one pot, an enormous tangle of licorice twigs and star anise steeps in sugar water: this will become the dashi, the base out of which most crack seed sauces are made. In two stainless steel troughs, Alfred rinses 1,000 pounds of salted plum, stirring them with a bat-sized ladle to remove as much salt as possible—each batch has to be rinsed three times. Then he soaks the plums twice in a syrup of fresh water laced with 300 pounds of sugar, each time discarding the sugar bath. Later, in the other great pot, the plums will be gently cooked in a special version of the home-brewed dashi. After the plums have soaked for two days and stewed in the dashi, Mr. Siu and Alfred shovel them onto perforated racks and put them in a huge oven to slowly dry. They’ll sit there for a couple days until Mr. Siu is satisfied with their weight and consistency.
Jade Foods is a family-owned business, founded forty-five years ago by Hollis Ho, a local entrepreneur who once owned an abalone cannery in South America … and who also brought Hawai‘i its first Chicago-style pizza. Ho still putters around the factory every day, but his daughter, Deanne, has run the company since 1998. She remembers growing up with crack seed: As a child, she haunted the aisles of the old factory when it was down on Dillingham Boulevard. “I remember I used to grab a bag of seedless wet plum,” she says, “and then run across the street to the Lays plant and steal potato chips.” It runs in the family: Deanne’s daughter likes to use red li hing mui as lipstick.
Stacey Higashi, who’s in charge of the company’s sales and marketing, takes it as a point of pride that Jade Foods has managed to grow a little each year. Today, Jade is a far-flung operation. In addition to the orchard in California, supplies come in from across Asia. Deanne travels regularly to rural areas of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand to make sure she gets the best ingredients. Higashi points out that quality is critical for Jade Foods. Because production costs are so high in Hawai‘i, Jade seed is always more expensive than imported seed.
“We don’t want to just survive,” says Higashi, “we want to thrive. Deanne has children who should inherit all this.” But this is a tough business. In order to compete with the importers who supply most of the crack seed in Hawai‘i, Higashi says Jade simply has to offer a better product. But even packaging seed is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, especially for the wet
Those of a certain age remember when crack seed only came out of an enormous glass jar. Now, most seed is sold in plastic bags at the grocery store—only a few shops do enough volume to rely on glass jars. That old-time feel is what keeps customers coming back to places like Seed City in Pearl Ridge, the Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki and the Crack Seed Center in Ala Moana.
The Crack Seed Center, which opened in 1959 as one of the original stores in the Ala Moana Center, is probably the largest retailer of crack seed in Hawai‘i. It’s also delightfully old-fashioned. Ted Li, who bought the store fifteen years ago, still carries more than 100 kinds of seed, all in glass jars. Every day, 500 to 600 customers come through the store looking for their ration of salted plums or shredded mango. Li says this volume allows him to sell a fresher product. “We cater to the discriminating type of customer,” says Li. “They have to know it’s fresh.”
Many of those customers have been coming to the Crack Seed Center since it first opened. Li says some who’ve moved to the Mainland will visit with their children and say, “Mom and Dad used to come to this store every week.” It’s not uncommon for elderly customers to bring their grandchildren in.
The nostalgia people feel for crack seed is a real boon for business. At the Crack Seed Store, customers call from around the world to place orders. One afternoon while I was in the store, Mr. Young packed up five care packages to send to customers on the Mainland. On the same day, four different customers came into the store to place embarrassingly large orders. One lady bought a mix costing nearly $100. Worried that we might think she was going to eat it all herself, she told us, “I have a daughter going to school at USC in Los Angeles. She’s homesick.”
Crack seed is thought to have originated in China, as a way to preserve fruit and seafood. Chinese soldiers supposedly carried it with them like hard tack. It lasted indefinitely and was thought to be good for the health. At the Crack Seed Center, Mr. Li refers elliptically to its medicinal value. “Although we cannot claim it,” he says, “Chinese have been using it for years and years.” Indeed, older Chinese customers still choose lemon varieties to treat a cold or candied ginger for motion sickness.
Regardless of the origins of crack seed, Hawai‘i has come to be its capital. Mr. Li and Mr. Young immigrated from Vietnam and Hong Kong respectively. In both places, crack seed is common, but neither remembers as much variety as one can find in Island shops today. Similarly, Deanne Ho has visited crack seed factories across East Asia. “Most of them only make a few types,” she says, noting that Jade produces more than fifty varieties.
On the shelves of Jade’s Waipahu warehouse, crack seed waits in barrels to be packed. Willy, my guide, lets me taste some of them: wet ume; sweet ginger; crisp plum; five varieties of li hing mui; wet lemon; mango slice; and li hing cherry, pineapple and sweet cherry. In the back, Mr. Siu meticulously stirs glistening, scarlet racks of wet mango slices to ensure they’ll dry evenly. Wandering through the warehouse, I think of something Mr. Li told me back at the Crack Seed Center: “Local customers are very conservative; they stick to what they know.” When no one is looking, I pull a paper bag out of my pocket and fill it with wet li hing mui. Later, after I’ve eaten it all, I plan to suck the bag.