The Enduring Appeal of Hawaii’s Preserved Fruits

“CRACK SEED” IS less a name than an imperative. In its broadest definition, it is a category of snack, beloved in Hawaii, in which fruit — plum, peach, apricot, cherry, mango, lemon — is dried and shriveled beyond recognition, salted and sugared, simmered in a broth of sweet medicinal herbs, then served wet or left to shrivel again. But crack seed also refers, more singularly, to preserved fruit in which the stone heart has been split and left embedded in the flesh, a touch of bitterness that makes the taste stronger, keener — a shock to the tongue.

Note that it is never “cracked” seed, but always present tense, like another island specialty: shave ice. This reflects the pidgin legacy of immigrants who came from Asia to work Hawaii’s sugar-cane plantations in the mid-19th century and had no time for the niceties of conjugation in their new language. There’s an immediacy to it; spoken out loud, “crack seed” sounds like what it is, the hard nut breaking under the teeth. In poetic terms, the name is a spondee, two syllables in a row that claim equal force, disrupting the lilt of ordinary speech, like a command or a shout: Shut up, no way, get out.

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The custom of eating preserved fruit was passed down by plantation workers from Zhongshan in the Pearl Delta of southern China, who started arriving in Hawaii — then a kingdom — as contract laborers in the mid-19th century. As of the 2010 census, the majority of the state’s population was of Asian ancestry; around 15 percent was at least part Chinese, three-quarters of whom can trace their family history back to those early émigrés. Transliterations and adaptations of Chinese words — some Cantonese, some from a Zhongshan dialect — are still used to describe crack seed: “Kam cho” signals an infusion of licorice; “see mui” is a catchall for dried fruit in general, although the original term refers specifically to the fruit of the Prunus mume tree, the drupe of which is commonly called a plum even though it’s closer botanically to an apricot, plucked before it’s ripe and bracingly sour. (In Japan, the same fruit is fermented to make umeboshi.)

But the epitome of crack seed, its quintessential preparation, is li hing mui, for which dried plums are plunged in a licorice-laced brew until they take on the root’s resinous sweetness. Many calibrations are sold today across the islands, pre-sealed in packets hanging by the checkout at chain pharmacies and grocery stores, or, better, fished out of giant glass apothecary jars at one of the few remaining dedicated crack-seed shops. The plums might be sticky or desiccated; armed with seed or pitted; dyed a virulent char siu red that stains the fingers or left “white,” really a pale rust, like the silt of a river run dry.

These are minor details, a quibble of personal preference. All formulas share the same goal: brazen, maddening flavor, with sweet, sour and salty in anarchic revel, each taken to the extreme — or “to da max,” as kama‘aina (locals or, literally, “children of the land”) might say. This is not so much taste as full-body sensation.

The texture, verging on jerky, can also be a challenge to outsiders. How to maneuver through the fruit’s collapsed drapery of flesh? The seed is another complication; you’re not supposed to eat it but suck on it as your teeth simultaneously tear at the meat, which resists like leather. The proper technique requires dexterity: It is work, and worth it, and afterward, you spit the seed into the palm of your hand — and then maybe lick the inside of the li hing mui bag, for one last hit of salty-sour-sweet.

Almost anything can become li hing, from ginger and lemon peel, which are actually whole lemons smashed flat, to “baby seed,” a mulberry, to “footballs,” a nickname for the so-called Chinese olives (from the Canarium album tree) that evoke their Mediterranean counterparts only in shape and sheen, tasting sweet and tart. And li hing is no longer confined to preserves: These days, the plums are sometimes ground to powder, which may be strewn over slices of pineapple and rubbed on baby back ribs, infiltrating gummy bears and vinaigrettes, dusting the rims of margaritas and neon-bright domes of shave ice.

The people of Hawaii are not alone in the West in their devotion to this riotous confluence of flavors. Some 6,000 miles away — almost the distance from Zhongshan to Honolulu — Mexicans likewise anoint mangos and raspados (their shave ice) with a salsa known as chamoy, whose base is salted plum, amplified by chile. The Chinese voyaged there, too, migrating in the 19th century, although it took longer for their culinary notions to enter the culture; only in the past few decades did chamoy — the food historian Rachel Laudan has noted the name’s etymological kinship to “see mui” — become common, first in the form of dried and salted fruit (saladito), and then as a ubiquitous condiment, salty-sour-sweet with a quaver of heat, wielded by street vendors and high-end chefs alike.

IN HAWAII, CRACK SEED remains a daily pleasure, but the number of shops dedicated to it have dwindled. One of the loveliest, simply named Crack Seed Store, lies just off the main strip of Kaimuki, a low-slung, unhurried Honolulu neighborhood. Kon Ping Young, 69, who’s run the shop since 1979 with his wife, Fung Tang, is famous for skimming liquid from a jar of li hing mui and pouring it into an Icee, a kind of volcanic eruption in reverse and a triumph of salty and sour over sweet. He stocks the shelves with dozens of varieties of preserved fruit, from engorged orbs to near fossils. Some jars, pillaged by previous customers, stand empty save for the inky pickling dregs, or with their walls like frosted panes in winter, etched in salt and sugar.

On a recent visit, I pointed to a jar of what looked like ossified plums, tucked away on a back shelf. “That’s old-school,” Young said. “Not so popular anymore.” To be contrary, I bought a quarter-pound, and out on the sidewalk, I put one of the hard dark plums in my mouth. It was pure salt. No: It was salt as if I’d never properly understood the word, ageless and engulfing, the world’s last gift to a drowning man. I kept chewing it, thrilled and horrified, until I came out the other side and the salt turned to cooling menthol. My mind felt clean and blank, as if my memory had been wiped; as if I had exhausted the possibilities of taste and was left with nothing but the longing for another bite.

Digital tech: Ryan Liu. Photo assistant: Go Sugimoto. Stylist’s assistant: Sophia Kwan.

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