After some agonizing, I went with half lilikoi, half li hing mui. The masked worker at Wilson’s by the Bay, on Mamo St. in Hilo, smiled with her eyes and poured the syrups from a pair of spouted glass bottles, turning the delicate shave ice amber on one side and red, flecked with bits of li hing mui, on the other. My dad went with strawberry. “So boring,” I teased.
I’d just returned to Hilo after living in Honolulu for the past seven years. The worst parts of the pandemic seemed to have passed, and during a time of so much change, it was nice just to stroll downtown Hilo with my dad while snacking on a favorite treat from my childhood.
In high school, my friends and I would stop in at Wilson’s by the Bay for shave ice and crack seed goodies after a day at the beach. Wilson’s was right on Hilo Bay Front, back then, but my go-to shave ice flavors were the same: half lilikoi, half li hing mui.
As my dad and I walked, we reminisced about Kawate Seed Shop, a beloved crack seed shop that closed in 2016. My folks would often take me there for a Saturday shave ice, and maybe some sweet red li hing mui, scooped from a giant glass jar and dumped into a clear, plastic bag, for the road. Neighborhood crack seed shops, like Kawate’s, may have dwindled over the years, but Hawaii’s love for that mouth-watering, sweet-sour-salty taste most certainly has not.
Crack seed landed in the Islands about 125 years ago, and its illicit sounding name is unique to Hawaii. It’s a local term for preserved fruits, known as huà méi (话梅) in China. Méi, pronounced mui in South China, means plum, the fruit from which the many varieties of crack seed are made. Huà means to talk story, which is something you might do while snacking on mui.
Traditionally, huà méi was made with the small plums of the Prunus mume, an East Asian and Southeast Asian species that is closer to an apricot than a plum. Too sour to eat off the tree, the plums were often preserved in salt to be used as a seasoning ingredient or eaten as a salty snack. For traditional travelers, the salted plums replenished salt that had been sweated out and helped with water retention, much like a salt tablet or a sports drink would. In fact, the most popular and timeless of the crack seed varieties, li hing mui, translates to “traveler’s plum.”
However, crack (or “cracked”) seed is the name a particular kind of seed. It refers to a wet, sweet-sour plum whose seed had be cracked into bits with the meat of the plum still attached. Cracking the seed releases a unique flavor into the meat.
When the salted, preserved plums arrived in Hawaii in the late 1800s, they arrived with the Chinese immigrants. Merchants like Sheong Yee catered to local tastes by adding spiced sauces to the salted plums from China, then sold them from horse-drawn carts around Oʻahu.
Yee’s modest business grew and eventually became Yick Lung, a snack food brand Hawaiʻi baby boomers will remember fondly, if not for its local treats, then surely for the Sunday Manoa’s 1972 album, Cracked Seed, which features a jar of Yick Lung crack seed on its cover.
In 1961, Hollis Ho started Jade Foods, which is now run by his daughter, Deanne. Today, Jade continues in the tradition of Yick Lung, developing signature sauces to flavor their salted plums, and marketing their snacks throughout Hawaii, and beyond. Now more than 60 years old, Jade takes pride in the fact that many of their products continue to be made in Hawaii, something most other crack seed producers can’t claim.
Ho says that many of the other crack seed brands import their products from Asia, and that they tend not to have the same flavors locals love. Hawaii crack seed flavor profiles tend toward the sweeter side, she says. This is especially true of li hing mui.
Some things stay the same
As a child of the 90s, I grew up amid the li hing flavor craze. Suddenly, Hawaii folks were eating li hing mui everything: popcorn, arare (Japanese rice crackers), gummi bears, cranberries, apples, pineapples, hard candies, and more. Li hing powder rimmed cocktail glasses, coated malasadas, and, of course, flavored shave ice syrup. In those days, it was common for kids to spend the whole day with red-stained fingertips after eating a li hing-flavored treat.All these years later and I still haven’t kicked the li hing mui habit I developed in my childhood. It’s why my mouth waters and my palate twinges as I scroll through Jade’s li hing mui offerings online, just as they did upon seeing those rows of giant glass jars in Kawate’s seed shop. It’s why I can’t remember the last time I had shave ice that wasn’t li hing flavored.
“There are certain products that will be here forever,” Ho says. “Li hing mui is one of them.”
Check out these crack seed shops, like now
Wilson’s By the Bay
141 Mamo St, Hilo
Wilson’s may be known for its Hilo-style shave ice (ice shave, if you’re on Hawaii Island), but they’ve also got lots of crack seed and other local treats that are sure to take you back.
2064 Kilauea Ave, Hilo
Go for the furikake fish or meat jun plate lunch but stay for the massive selection of crack seed and Asian snacks.
Munch n’ Joy
111 Puainako St # 1002, Hilo
What do you need? No worries. Much n’ Joy’s got you. Li hing candies and old school crack seed, plus other sweet and chocolatey goodies.
Crack Seed Store
1156 Koko Head Ave., Honolulu
Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki is an OG. Have a li hing mui Icee and be whisked away to back in the day.
2752 Woodlawn Dr., Honolulu
Is there a better way to cool off after a Manoa Falls hike than with a strawberry Icee and some sweet, seedless li hing mui? Kay’s has been delighting the young and the young at heart since 1978.
Lin's Hawaiian Snacks
401 Kamakee St., Honolulu
Talk about selection. Enough to make you feel like a local kid in a candy story. You’ll leave Lin’s with twice as much as you thought you would.
Camellia Seed Shop
275 W Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului
Not only do they have a strong selection of crack seed, but they’re boba’s pretty good, too.
Maui Mui Company
310 Hookahi St. Ste. 101, Wailuku
Maui Mui captures the spirit of the old local snack shops. They’ve got everything from plate lunches and unique crack seed treats to toys and collectibles.