At the entrance, a young mainland couple tries talking story with the man behind the counter. “You always see those pictures of Honolulu and these glass jars so we wanted to check it out” he laughs. “How long have you been doing this?” Forty years. The man says. “What made you want to do this?” Dunno. He shrugs and smiles, looking puzzled by the inquiry. With neither knowing where to go with the conversation, there’s an awkward pause. “Ok. Bye. Thanks!” They turn to the door and exit empty handed.
The list of options is endless and Mr. Young’s shop is particularly well stocked. Crunchy asian crackers, dried squid and jerky, li hing flavored everything, japanese sweets, chewy peanut bars, all kinds of mouth watering mui, four different icee flavors. And if you still don’t know, you can play it safe with the standard chips and candies. I decide on a package of haw flakes, sakura and spicy kaki mochi and some tamarind candy.
For dad and crack seed vet, it’s teri beef jerky and quarter pound of dried red li hing, along with a large li hing coke icee.
Like your local deli, the crack seed store has something for everyone. But you have to sample a few to find what you like. My husband quickly jumps in “Can I try that salted ginger?” Not exactly what he was looking for. “Can I try the one next to it?” he points. No shame. Just ask.
After ordering my all vegan sprout salad, my sweet tooth pulls me to the store next door. The sign out front reads simply “Crack Seed Store.” I can’t decide if it’s meant matter of fact or staking its claim as The Crack Seed Store.
Waiting for our total, we meet customers John and his son Collin from Pearl City. It’s clear they came for more than just a look. No rookies here. John used to go to school across the street at Liliuokalani Elementary and now brings Collin to make some memories of his own. My husband leaves to pick up our order next door and I hang out to see their hit list.
As we walk in I ask if a lot of people come visit. “Oh yeah” He says. “Andrew Zimmern been here” He points to where I’m standing. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock. The man behind the counter turns out, is also the owner, Mr. Kon Ping Young. And the shop, now neighborhood landmark, has been in the same spot since the 1940s.
Second generation customer, Collin isn’t as much into the crack seed as he is the sour gummy worms, but the experience is just as sweet.
Thinking back on that scene I can see how it could be intimidating. Glass jars filled with who knows what. Dried, shriveled, and salted, floating in liquid, with names like king mui, football seed, and olive cake. But for us that grew up in Hawaii, a visit to the crack seed store is just second nature. It’s the go-to after school spot. The obligatory stop for a good report card or no cavities after the dentist–the latter of which never really happened for me. Go figure.
The Crack Seed Store Crack Seed Store 1156 Koko Head Ave. Open Mon-Sat 9:30am-6:00pm After ordering my all vegan sprout salad, my sweet tooth pulls me to the store next door. The sign
My Gen Z 13-year-old has no idea what she’s missing. She thinks li hing is an accessory to freshly cut apples, malassadas or gummy worms. Every now and then, I take her to the Kaimukī shop, the only one that’s still around. Even though she’s more interested in the latest flavor of Hi-Chew, it’s OK. I savor every seed and moment I get to spend with her in a place so special to me.
Seed City, Pearlridge Center, (808) 488-9755
Going as often as I did as a kid, you get to know the menu and workers. The Ala Moana store always had aunties in red aprons who would quickly approach you. “What you lookin’ foh?” If you were a longtime pro, you would look unsure and ask to “sample” a few different ones. Once you decided, you always asked for the bag unsealed. At least I did. Crack seed is like french fries—once you get a whiff of it, there’s no saving it for later. At Doe Fang, the lovable Uncle Clay treated (and hugged) all his customers like ʻohana. His popular li-hing flavored Icees were the hands-down fave. The Kaimukī seed shop was known for marrying crispy kakimochi with the sweet-sour juices from wet li hing mui. It’s drool worthy. Maaaybe more than Henry Golding. Nah.
Seeds ‘n Things, Windward Mall, (808) 235-5050
Over the years, my need for crack seed has diminished. So did the number of shops. When Crack Seed Center closed at Ala Moana and Doe Fang changed to a shave-ice-only shop, that stung—and not only on a nostalgic level. I had started creating my own memories with my own daughter, taking her to my favorite crack seed haunts, even bribing her with a treat from Crack Seed Center during a long day of shopping. (The li-hing apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) And, yes, I can take her to Wholesale Unlimited and Longs for sealed packages of li-hing mango and peach strips, but not having uncle or auntie scoop up some sweet li hing mui from a glass jar—even though you know the shelf life is way expired—de-flavors the experience.
*If you have a little seed money, here’s where our list of still standing crack seed shops:
It was literally cracked seed and painstakingly difficult to eat. I would watch my mom dig out all the edible parts (the meat) while plucking out all the cracked parts of the seed inside. That’s how she grew up eating it. For me, that way was ridiculous and too time consuming. I opted for seedless, or whole seeded, rock salt plums, cherry seeds, mango seed, sweet li hing mui and lemon peel. They all offered the same addictive punchy sour, extra salty, hint of sweetness flavor found in crack seed, minus all the humbug work.
C-Mui Center, 1111 Bethel St., (808) 536-4712
In college on the Mainland, I remember my mom sending me care packages full of li-hing-this-and-that. I would tell my haole friends, “It’s like dried cherries.” They did not agree. One lick of a cherry or rock salt plum seed would send them into a food fit that involved sour faces, gagging noises and promises of revenge. I have to admit, my evil side enjoyed their reactions, but it wasn’t as if I was giving them natto (slimy, fermented bean curd)—that’s just cruel.
Right when I walk into a crack seed store, it hits me—the sweet-sour-salty aroma of li hing mui. My mouth waters, and instantly, I feel like a kid in a candy shop again.