story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
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.