Crack seed shops are Hawaii's version of candy stores. But what exactly is crack seed?
Crack seed is a popular term in Hawaii and it simply refers to dehydrated fruits, seeds, and preserves. Chinese merchants would carry crack seed when traveling throughout China to supplement their rice meals. Salted seeds could be easily stored for long periods of time, making them ideal for long distance travelers. Most crack seed is typically salty, which replenishes electrolytes lost by perspiration from weary traveling merchants.
Li Hing Mui is a particular type of crack seed. It mainly consists of dried up plum skin. Li hing mui was originally exported from the province of Guangdong of China, where it was known as a "huamei". It has a distinctive and strong flavor, setting itself apart from other crack seed. It combines a sour, salty, and sweet taste, often described as tangy and tart. In Hawaii, li hing mui is also known as "red powder" and used as a flavoring and is often sprinkled on fruits such as fresh pineapple and papayas.
The early Chinese plantation workers who first arrived in Hawaii popularized crack seed and li hing mui in the mid 1800s. Crack seed grew in popularity around 1900 when Yee Sheong started importing the product from China with other preserved fruits.
Translated, "li hing mui" literally means "travelling plum". Hawaiians love li hing mui for it's unique taste. However, today the exported product typically consists of licorice, sugar, salt, plum, water, aspartame and food coloring. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the food coloring of li hing mui. There are concerns about the various dyes giving li hing its colorful appearance, but the dyes supposedly have been tested and evaluated.
Li hing mui is a popular gift during the holiday season in Hawaii and often goes well on shave ice. Shops throughout the Islands will sell gift baskets with li hing powder and dried fruits. The "red powder" can be found in stores that sell Asian and local food throughout Hawaii. Children enjoy the flavor on sour gummy worms, sour gummy bears, sour patch kids, rock candy, and sour apple candy. It's said that you should brush your teeth after eating a snack with Li hing mui on it.
Li hing is also added to alcohol-based cocktails. Restaurants and bars will use li hing as a replacement for salt in some dishes. It supposed to give it a “tangy twist”. Li hing powder comes in variety of colors, other than red. There is a “white” version of the powder that is often sprinkled on dehydrated or dried plums.
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