What’s ‘crack seed,’ one of Hawai‘i’s favorite snacks?

Sour candies, shave ice, seasoned popcorn: These crunchy treats record the island chain’s many cultural influences.

When visitors walk into a crack seed store, they are greeted with a dizzying array of colors in snacks ranging from gummies to seaweed-wrapped rice crackers, the buttery smell of popcorn, and the rumble of a shave ice machine.

To newcomers, it’s a feast for the senses. But for many locals, these stores are beloved classics and the snacks they sell are childhood staples.

The “crack seed” name comes from the preservation process for li hing mui, or Hawaiian sour plum; over time its pit cracks open. The fruit’s addictive flavor is used in everything from sore throat remedies to ice cream toppings. “Crack seed” has become shorthand for the array of dried and preserved international snacks found at these shops.

Immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, and beyond—many who came to work on plantations growing sugar, coffee, and pineapple in the 19th century—contributed to making crack seed a standard of Hawaiian cuisine. These immigrants stayed and intermarried, including with Native Hawaiians, making Hawai‘i home to the largest number of multiracial people in the U.S.

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It’s this unique mix of people for whom crack seed is so special. For generations of Hawaiians, these specialty shops are a way to reconnect with their roots and pass down a delectable tradition to their children and grandchildren.

Although crack seed can now be found in Hawai‘i at major chains from Walmart to 7-Eleven, mom and pop shops have fought to survive in the pandemic and continue generations-old traditions as crack seed producers come and go and tastes change.

For travelers looking to get a true taste of Hawaiian life, crack seed stores provide insight to the immigrant culture that makes the islands so profound. Visiting these stores benefits local and family-owned businesses, and lets travelers enjoy a fun and distinctive mix of treats—perhaps by the beach on a weekend afternoon, as the locals do.

A sweet treat’s story

In Hawai‘i, the sour plum fruit of the Prunus mume tree—see mui in Cantonese—evolved into li hing mui, marked by its reddish hue. They’re pickled in a brew of licorice, salt, and sugar—the result is a distinct sour flavor that blends salty and sweet. They can be found whole, sliced or dried and ground into powder to be sprinkled on gummies or ice cream and fresh fruit.

In Cantonese, li hing mui means “traveling plum.” It’s an apt name, considering its history in Hawai‘i.

It’s believed Chinese immigrants brought sour plum treats when they came to the islands to work on plantations in the mid-1800s, according to the University of Hawai‘i West Oahu’s Center for Labor Education & Research. By the 20th century, the plantations, which grew fruit and rice, had actively recruited workers from Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Puerto Rico. At the end of their three- to five-year contracts, some plantation workers moved to the mainland but many decided to stay in Hawai‘i and put down roots. The plantation-era society and fusion of cultures was unlike any other found in the U.S.

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“You had people who eventually went off the plantation and went to places like Chinatown, where the land value was affordable so it was easy to set up a business,” says Franklin Ng, professor of Anthropology at Fresno State University. Ng, who is Chinese, grew up near Honolulu’s Chinatown—one of the oldest in the nation. “So you had Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino businesses alongside Hawaiian businesses in the Chinatown area. Many were in the same economic class, so they learned not to waste food and share things with each other. Li hing was a little slice of comfort food after a long day that didn’t cost a lot.”

A crack seed family tradition

The first thing visitors may notice at Rainbow Crack Seed store, in Oahu’s sleepy town of Kaneohe, is the unmistakable scent of fresh popcorn.

Here, they serve it “hurricane style”—mixed with furikake (seaweed seasoning), arare (tiny rice crackers), and butter. The store also sells shave ice with more than 25 flavors to sweeten the frozen dessert, including guava and passion fruit.

Cramped rows of bagged treats include sweet white li hing mui, pineapple sour belts, dried lemon peel, and cola bottle gummies (coated with sour li hing powder). In the back of the one-room store, shelves of giant jars are filled with floating fruits, like pickled plum, mango, and sweet and sour flat cherry.

Rainbow Crack Seed tells the story of the Ha family through five decades and three generations. The story starts with Serena Ha, who moved to Hawai‘i from Seoul, Korea, in the early 1970s. She and other family members were laid to rest in the Kaneohe Hawaiian Memorial Park, located right across the street from the store.

Rainbow’s present owner, 65-year-old Christy Ha, recalls the role of stores like hers in Aloha Fridays—when locals wear Hawaiian print shirts to celebrate the end of the work week. In 1982, the song “Aloha Friday” could be heard on every radio station, with Kimo Kahoano singing: “It’s Aloha Friday, no work till Monday.” Families would stock up on crack seed snacks to eat while spending the weekend at the beach.

When the pandemic shut down businesses across the state in spring 2020, the Ha family worried Rainbow Crack Seed might be closed forever. In fall 2020, Hawai‘i suffered among the nation’s highest rates of businesses closed, and a month later, 25 percent of all local businesses in the state were permanently shuttered.

Although tourism in the islands slowed to a crawl during the pandemic, most of Rainbow Crack Seed’s customers have always been locals. For families hungry for a taste of normalcy and nostalgia, the store’s treats became a small pleasure during a time when people weren’t allowed on beaches or hiking trails. “Especially during that sort of confused and somewhat depressing time for many of us, we felt as if it was our duty to serve the taste of happiness and joy with locals’ favorite snacks,” says Julie Ha, Christy’s niece.

The Ha family reopened for the summer 2020 season and has remained open since, despite changing restrictions as COVID-19 numbers fluctuated. Wanting to operate as normally as possible, the Ha family invested in sanitizing and safety measures to keep themselves and their customers safe. They shortened store hours but still opened daily, limiting the amount of patrons inside at one time to follow social-distancing rules.

In the third year of the pandemic, Rainbow Crack Seed found itself thriving. Now, the family is planning to expand its one storefront to other locations across the state. The pandemic also pushed them to move to selling customizable gift sets online. Although fewer crack seed stores remain in the islands, this store’s survival proves the strength of the tradition.

Memories across generations

Crack seed helps connect residents to their family histories, from sharing the excitement of driving up to the shop to the joy of taking a favorite treat home and enjoying them together. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, kids’ changing tastes and availability of classic snacks, crack seed continues to provide intergenerational connections and a sense of place.

Local patron Philip K. Ho, 90, loves the more traditional Chinese crack seed snacks, like preserved fruit. Born to a Chinese immigrant mother and a local Chinese father descended from plantation workers, Ho remembers moving to Kaimuki in east Oahu as a boy. His descendants still live there today.

His grandchildren grew up eating crack seed too, although Ho’s daughter Renee Tengan, 55, says her children gravitated to gummies and other candies that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Renee’s son Jaren Tengan, 27, is the fourth generation in his family and of Chinese and Japanese heritage.

Every Friday, as a child, he and his brothers would split a pound of kakimochi, soy sauce-flavored rice crackers, and he’d try to talk his mom into a Coke slushy mixed with li hing juice for an extra kick. He remembers visiting his grandparents on Sundays and sucking the sticky flesh off of rock salt plum as the adults “talked story,” local slang for chit chat.

In 2012, he moved to Washington State for college. When it was time to go back to the mainland, his mom would stuff large bags of kakimochi, li hing gummies, and dried cuttlefish in his suitcase so he could bring a piece of home with him.

The three generations of Tengans found themselves all on Oahu during the pandemic, balancing safety with working in-person at their family business, an auto shop. In trying to keep some sort of semblance of regular life, they continued to support their favorite local businesses, like the dim sum restaurant down the street and the crack seed store the family went to when the boys were young.

Although li hing gummies and similar snacks are readily available at gas stations and pharmacies, going to a crack seed store for the Tengans—and many other longtime residents—is a comforting visit and reminder of family ties.

Kathleen Wong is a writer based in Honolulu. You can find her on Twitter.

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