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. HH