Hawaii's Beloved Snack Is Your New Favorite Treat

Rob Ramshur’s crack seed company Traveling Plum is making a local version of the sweet and sour snack.

In Hawaii, you're more likely to see a kid in a crack seed store than in a candy store. My mouth involuntarily puckers and waters when I pass one, its shelves lined with large glass jars of crack seed—preserved fruit that's simultaneously sweet, sour, and salty. Some shops carry more than 100 varieties, including sweet wet mango doused in li hing (preserved plum) powder; licorice lemon; and salted ginger. Crack seed shops dot Hawaii's towns, but the snacks are also found at gas stations, drugstores, and grocery stores throughout the islands.

READ MORE: How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii's Cuisine

The crack seed tradition was brought to Hawaii by Chinese contract laborers in the mid 19th century. But even though Hawaii now has variations that are endemic to the islands, most crack seed still comes from China, where it's often mass produced with preservatives and artificial flavors. Enter Rob Ramshur, a former chef at Lineage at Wailea who makes crack seed on Maui entirely from local fruit. In the year since he launched his crack seed business Traveling Plum, he's crafted the snack from fruits like pineapple, guava, starfruit, and kumquat, fermenting each with Hawaiian sea salt to coax out their fruitiness. He then marinates the fruit with brown sugar or honey, preserved lemon, and spices like cinnamon, clove, and allspice, and then dries them to concentrate the flavors. The result: wrinkly, glossy candy coated in syrup that puckers the mouth with its sourness while simultaneously pacifying it with sweetness.I eat it straight out of the jar, but I've also found Ramshur's crack seed and the thick syrup it's bathed in to be a perfect salty-sweet component in cocktails and seltzer water and drizzled over ice cream.

Founder Robert Ramshur and Starfruit Mui
Cassandra Hatsu and Courtesy of Traveling Plum

Traveling Plum's name is borrowed from one of the original crack seed snacks, a salted dried plum known as li hing mui, or literally "traveling plum" in Cantonese. Ramshur started Traveling Plum to "connect the dots" between the abundance of local fruit that he would see falling to the ground and one of Hawaii's most beloved traditions that relied heavily on imports. "So much food on the island is not being utilized," he says. With Traveling Plum, he's "taking things all the way back to the source and doing as much locally as possible," he says. Before making crack seed, he would even make his own Spam from local pork and venison.

He'll preserve any profusion of fruit, such as figs from trees that were planted by Chinese immigrants on the cool slopes of Haleakala, and strawberry guava, a wildly invasive tree that chokes out native ecosystems. His process is entirely his own, though he's culled tips through the spiral-bound recipe books compiled by Hawaii church groups and other community organizations over the years. He'd bring his crack seed to old timers on the islands, who would tell him their stories of roof lemon, in which jars of salted lemons or limes would be left on roofs under the hot sun for a year, before drying the citrus to put in teas or treats. There are even stories of decades-old roof lemon that are family heirlooms. Roof lemon is an integral part of his crack seed process—he mixes it into his creations to create the snacks' signature sourness. Ramshur says that by working with Sheldon Simeon, the former chef de cuisine at Lineage, he learned the importance of cultural preservation through food—"what better area to help preserve, literally, than crack seed?" he says.

To buy: Traveling Plum crack seed, Travelingplum.com

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