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The Enduring Appeal of Hawaii’s Preserved Fruits


The people of Hawaii are not alone in the West in their devotion to this riotous confluence of flavors. Some 6,000 miles away — almost the distance from Zhongshan to Honolulu — Mexicans likewise anoint mangos and raspados (their shave ice) with a salsa known as chamoy, whose base is salted plum, amplified by chile. The Chinese voyaged there, too, migrating in the 19th century, although it took longer for their culinary notions to enter the culture; only in the past few decades did chamoy — the food historian Rachel Laudan has noted the name’s etymological kinship to “see mui” — become common, first in the form of dried and salted fruit (saladito), and then as a ubiquitous condiment, salty-sour-sweet with a quaver of heat, wielded by street vendors and high-end chefs alike.

IN HAWAII, CRACK SEED remains a daily pleasure, but the number of shops dedicated to it have dwindled. One of the loveliest, simply named Crack Seed Store, lies just off the main strip of Kaimuki, a low-slung, unhurried Honolulu neighborhood. Kon Ping Young, 69, who’s run the shop since 1979 with his wife, Fung Tang, is famous for skimming liquid from a jar of li hing mui and pouring it into an Icee, a kind of volcanic eruption in reverse and a triumph of salty and sour over sweet. He stocks the shelves with dozens of varieties of preserved fruit, from engorged orbs to near fossils. Some jars, pillaged by previous customers, stand empty save for the inky pickling dregs, or with their walls like frosted panes in winter, etched in salt and sugar.

On a recent visit, I pointed to a jar of what looked like ossified plums, tucked away on a back shelf. “That’s old-school,” Young said. “Not so popular anymore.” To be contrary, I bought a quarter-pound, and out on the sidewalk, I put one of the hard dark plums in my mouth. It was pure salt. No: It was salt as if I’d never properly understood the word, ageless and engulfing, the world’s last gift to a drowning man. I kept chewing it, thrilled and horrified, until I came out the other side and the salt turned to cooling menthol. My mind felt clean and blank, as if my memory had been wiped; as if I had exhausted the possibilities of taste and was left with nothing but the longing for another bite.

Digital tech: Ryan Liu. Photo assistant: Go Sugimoto. Stylist’s assistant: Sophia Kwan.


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