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Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods
Summer Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(2) page(s): 5, 16, and 18
Facing the parking lot on the ground floor of the largest shopping mall in the Pacific, the Ala Moana Center between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki, is a crack seed store. It is but one of the twenty stores listed in the 1994 Honolulu Yellow Pages under the heading 'Seeds--Chinese Preserved.' Inside, it has a typical crack seed store layout: a large central plinth laden with tall glass candy jars and shelves round the walls with further jars. These are full of preserved fruits, red and brown and green and black, some of them gleaming with syrup, some frosted with sugar, and yet others wrinkled and dusted with salt.
Listing a typical selection of names serves to drive home the variety of crack seed that is offered, as many as forty or fifty different kinds in a store: li hing mui, Maui-style sweet plum, mui plum, preserved chuan pei, chen pi seedless, mixed fruit, dried whole fruit, apricot poo ton lee, red olive, green olive, candy ginger, Hilo slice ginger, lemon juice ginger, wet li hing mango, seedless mango, dry mango, red mango, wet lemon, shredded mango, guava peel, sweet sour seed, sweet sour lemon, ginger, liquorice peach, wet ling hui, pickled mango, kam cho ginger, lemon strip, dried mango with skin, wet lemon peel, lemon peel, tender plum, sweet whole plum, dried slice olive, rose plum, preserve kumquats, baby seed, honey mango, sweet whole seed, cherry seed, rock salt plum, seedless plum, sweet sour prune, kam cho harm mui, sweet sour apricot, kam chao whole lemon, kam chao slice lemon.
This collection of preserved fruits is what in Hawaii goes by the Chinese name romanized there as see mui (pronounced see moy), or, much more commonly, by the local name of 'crack seed.' 'Seed' stands for the stones of the fruits that are often left in, 'crack' for the habit of cracking the stone to expose the kernel, enhancing the flavor. In standard English, this would be 'cracked' but Hawaii English dialect (pidgin) drops the last consonant. Seed is the generic name, the specific names being given in a random mixture of English and Chinese.
Chinese immigrants from Canton brought crack seed to Hawaii in the nineteenth century. Chinese cookbooks say little about these preserved fruits in the same way that European and American cookbooks say little about candies. Instead you have to turn to the work of anthropologists and food historians (Anderson 1988, 137; see also Simoons 1991, 221). In China, seed was made from the fruits of Prunus mume, often called a plum tree. In fact, it is not a plum at all. It is a quite distinct species, closer to an apricot, and known to botanists, plant experts and the nursery trade as the oriental flowering apricot. Indeed in California, the trees are grown as ornamentals; presumably the apricot-colored, sour fruit goes largely to waste. The oriental flowering apricot belongs with the Prunus armeniaca (the ordinary apricot) in the section Armeniaca of the genus Prunus, not with the Prunus salicina, the plum or li in Chinese.
This tree and its blossoms occupies an important place in Chinese cultural life. In the Asian galleries of the Honolulu Academy of Art, surely one of the most beautiful art galleries in the United States with its low sweeping roofs and interlocking outdoor courtyards, is an exquisite six-fold screen composed by Kiitsu Suzuki (1796-1858) around 1850. It depicts fragile white 'plum' blossoms on a knarled branch with red camellia blossoms in the background. It is but one of thousands of such depictions in Chinese and Japanese art. The tree defies the bitter winter, blossoming in January and February, and making it a potent symbol in Taoism.
Aside from the symbolic use, the Chinese dried and pickled the 'plum' in a multitude of ways (think of plum sauce, for example), creating the suan mei, or soured fruits, for snacks or accompaniments to meat. The name apparently meant travelling plum because soldiers used to carry the dried fruit with them.
One venerable Hawaiian crack seed company is Yick Lung. It is run, not as you might expect, by families with the name of Yick or Lung, but by the third generation of the Yee family who explain that the name means 'profitable enterprise' in Chinese. Their grandparents came to Hawaii in 1898 and founded the company a couple of years later. They imported the salted 'plums,' the li hing mui, from China.
The Yees discovered that people in Hawaii would buy a whole variety of sweet and sour tastes and began making different 'sauces' to vary the flavor. They added new items to the list, such as mango and cherry seeds. One brother ran a store on Lusitana Streets on the slopes of Punchbowl Volcano just north of downtown Honolulu, the other peddled the seed from a horsedrawn carriage. Indeed, the family claim that it was their grandfather who gave seed its local name when he noticed that some people enjoyed cracking the kernel after they had sucked off all the meat to eat the bitter-tasting meat inside. Now, almost a century later, the company has plans to export to Europe and Asia. Doubtless the Yees were not the only Chinese immigrants to import li hing mui . The Chinese were active entrepreneurs in every kind of food business. But it may well have been the Yees who made crack seed an important feature of Hawaii's culinary scene.
As common as crack seed in Hawaii is the Japanese ume, the cherry-sized, pink 'pickled plum.' I have never seen the two associated. But the mei is none other than the plum from which the ume is made--the names, of course--have the same origin. The Japanese in Japan and in Hawaii nibble at it for breakfast, put in the middle of their lunch musubi, and drink 'plum' wine made from it for celebrations. Since the Japanese make up about twenty percent of the population of Hawaii, their familiarity with the fruit may have facilitated the acceptance of crack seed.
Mexicans, too, enjoy these soured fruits. In Mexico and in those parts of the United States with large Mexican populations, saladitos (little salted things) can be found. They are not made in Mexico, it seems, but distributed from Taiwan. According to E.N. Anderson, they have been common in Mexico at least since the Chinese came in numbers to North America in the nineteenth century. He speculates that it is just possible that they have been there for centuries, from the days of the galleon that sailed from Manila to Acapulco.
During World War II, when imported seed was hard to come by in Hawaii, a whole genre of substitute homemade seed sprang up using local ingredients. So far as I know Prunus mume has never been grown commercially in Hawaii. But the tamarind tree, for example, has acidy-sweet pulp in its long leguminous pods--a little like the flesh of a dried apricot--which reminds locals of the mei. The home economist for the Maui Electric Company, Bonnie Tuell, reports that that not only does the ripe pulp taste sour just like sour preserved seeds, but that the p. 62), a report born out by a local Japanese friend who told me that when he was growing up on Oahu the tamarind was called the see mui tree. The most popular substitutes, though, were prunes and mangos, often spiced up with the addition of some commercial seed, particularly li hing mui.
Those days of scarcity are over; half a dozen firms in Hawaii manufacture or import seed. Everyone in Hawaii, not just the Chinese, now snacks on crack seed. Crack seed in Hawaii might be compared to pizza on the mainland. What was, in its home country, a recognized but minor kind of food, has exploded into a cacophony of variants of much greater importance. Homesick students away on the mainland call and beg 'send seed.' They may not know it, but it is possible to buy seed on the mainland. Asian stores usually carry a small selection of pre-packed seed. Recently, they have even begun stocking hygienic modern variants of the old crack seed jars, big plastic bags full of individually wrapped and labelled seed imported from Taiwan and Singapore. But they offer neither the range of a Hawaiian crack seed store, nor local varieties such as mango seed.
Another relevant comparison is candy. As countless varieties of candy are made from sugar and a few flavorings such as chocolate and nuts, so countless varieties of crack seed have been spun out of the basic ingredients of fruit, salt, sugar and anise. The li hing mui itself is very dry and salty. In other seeds, the proportions of sugar and anise to salt is usually higher and the fruit around the seed a little less dehydrated. Sweet sour seed, about the same size, but dark brown in color and looking as if it had been rolled in half-dried lawn mowings, is much softer and, as the name suggests, quite sweet. In a rock salt plum, the flesh covering the stone is sparse but it is not dry as bone, the salt is not overwhelming, and anise flavor comes through. It makes a very satisfying morsel to suck on.
The term 'seed' stretches to seedless seed. Mango strips, for example, are slices of green mango, skin still on, colored red, somewhat chewy, and tasting of salt, sugar and anise, but without a seed. Shredded lemon peel comprises a collection of grayish strips about an inch long and one-eighth inch on the side; they are soft to the bite with the familiar anise flavor heightened somewhat by the bitterness of the peel. In short, variations in texture are as important as taste in distinguishing different seeds. New combinations are constantly being developed: two recent entries are dried cranberry li hing mui and li hing mui gummi bears. You can even buy li hing mui powder to shake over other snacks such as popcorn or crackers.
Crack seed, like candy, is more often bought in a store than made at home. But the following recipes are common in Hawaiian cookbooks. I imagine that such recipes were first developed to stretch scarce supplies of seed, perhaps during World War II.
Mango seed not only tastes good, but helps dispose of that enormous crop from the tree in the backyard. It is always made from green mangos; the seed is easy to cut through, the flesh is still firm and tangy. Mango shreds and mango seed are equally popular. Prunes, readily available and with a sweet-sour taste, are also popular for homemade seed, though the recipes usually require that you already have two commercially-produced seeds, lemon peel, and li hing mui. With these, the recipe is simplicity itself. Outside Hawaii, li hing mui can be obtained in Asian stores, possibly lemon peel can too.
Below are some recipes to try your hand at making some forms of crack seed.
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