Asian Culinary Cultures and Spam: A Love Story for the Ages

Summer Reading: American Breakfast Meat has a special place on dining tables halfway around the world, from the Philippines to Japan to South Korea – and now, on the tables of Asian communities in New York. -Zeeland. How did it happen? Jihee Junn is investigating.

First published on February 14, 2021

BBelieve it or not, Spam and Seolnal (or Lunar New Year as it’s more widely known) go hand in hand in South Korea. In addition to the autumn holidays of Chuseok (or Thanksgiving), Seolnal is a time of year when millions of families come together to eat, play games, and perform various rituals like jesa and sebae. Since it would be rude to show up empty-handed to loved ones (someone has to bring chocolate on Christmas, right?), Many take gifts – usually food or household items – one of the most popular of which is a richly wrapped box canned fleshy pink meat.

In 2019, the South Korean spam maker announced that it had sold around 1.2 billion cans – or 24 cans for each inhabitant of the country – since the start of production in 1987. But it is not only during the holidays that spam is consumed. Sometimes it is eaten as a side dish, fried in a pan with rice; or in gimbap, the bite-sized meal similar to a sushi, or tossed in kimchi fried rice. Most notably, spam is used in a dish called budae jjigae – which literally translates to “basic army stew” – and it is this dish more than any other that explains South Korea’s unique relationship, but also other Asian nations, keep up with the meat lunch.

Anti-spam gift boxes are on display in a Seoul supermarket. (Photo: ED JONES / AFP via Getty Images)

Spam (for “spicy ham” or “pork shoulder and ham”) was introduced by the American company Hormel in 1937. During World War II, the meaty, portable and non-perishable foodstuff became a staple for Allied troops abroad, who introduced it to local residents. But unlike in Europe, where its popularity largely declined after the war, the product remained in demand in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

In Hawaii, where less than 1.5 million people are thought to consume a whopping seven million cans per year in famous dishes like musubi, wartime food rationing coupled with its geographic isolation from the mainland has not only pressured Hawaiians to accumulate spam, but see it as a valuable source of food during a time of turmoil. Likewise, in the Philippines – a former American colony – the rationing of WWII ultimately made spam a very popular and important cultural symbol, with Junk mail log being a breakfast favorite in many Filipino households.

Chanpurū from Okinawa with Spam, Tofu, Garlic, Chives and Onion (Photo: Getty Images)

In places like Hong Kong, spam was the only meat available immediately after WWII, and it continues to be served in noodles, sandwiches and rice dishes nowadays. It was the same in Japan, with locals on Okinawa Island in southern Japan becoming particularly ardent spam enthusiasts, using it in onigiri (rice ball) and chanpurū (sit fry) due to US military occupation until 1972, and it has a continued presence on the island to this day.

Which brings us back to budae jjigae, the hot and spicy stew made from a mishmash of local and imported ingredients – kimchi, sausage, baked beans, instant noodles and, of course, spam.

Introduced by American soldiers who fought the Korean War in the 1950s, spam became a sought-after commodity as the country plunged into widespread famine and poverty. Food was scarce, especially meat, and the spam, ham, hot dog sausages, and other processed and canned goods that rolled out of U.S. Army bases became a boon to the hungry masses. Much of it came in the form of unwanted leftovers, thrown away by soldiers and picked up by starving locals who scooped up whatever they could to survive. Eventually, people got innovative – as they often do in times of crisis – in giving birth to the comforting stew Koreans still enjoy today.

Budae jjigae (Photo: Getty Images)

For many first generation Asian immigrants in New Zealand, spam takes on a different, more nostalgic connotation; one that dates back to childhood and grows up with culturally traditional cuisine. Because although spam itself is a product of American food manufacturing, its widespread adoption in the East has made it unique and unmistakably “Asian” in many contexts.

“I’ve eaten it all my life. I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t eat it with my family, ”says comedian James Roque, who left the Philippines for New Zealand at the age of eight. “It’s incredibly common in Filipino households. “

Roque says he often ate crispy Fried Spam with white rice and banana sauce, mixing the salty and the sweet in one dish. “[Nowadays] I buy it sometimes if I feel nostalgic. I feel like it once every three or four months. Although I try not to eat so much because it’s terrible for you. Rich in fat, high in sodium; you wonder why there are high rates of heart disease and diabetes in the Philippines!

“It’s one of those things that holds such a nostalgic place in my memory and my heart, but when you really break it down, the source of it is America waving her dick and trying to be a superpower in the world.” world. So its source is not great, ”he says.

A popular way to serve spam in the Philippines (Photo: Getty Images)

Tze Ming Mok, a New Zealand writer and social scientist of Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean descent, was recently spammed for the first time as an adult. She had just watched the movie Always Be My Maybe where an American-Vietnamese child, whose adult version is played by Ali Wong, fry herself Spam with rice except when she is left alone at home while her parents go. to work.

“I literally haven’t had it since I was a kid,” Mok said, recalling how his mother regularly prepared fried spam. “When I first took it out of the box, it was like dog food! But it was as good as I remembered it. Frying makes the fat and makes it crispy, and you can also slice it very thin like bacon and use it as a garnish.

“I still have some at home. It’s quite unhealthy and high in salt and fat [so I can only have] small amounts at a time.

“I grew up eating spam from various dishes. The most common and easiest I had was with a fried egg, spam and rice with ketchup, ”says Yutak Son, who grew up with Korean parents and is now a chef at Shed at Te. Motu Vineyard on Waiheke Island. “It’s nostalgia, for sure! I still remember the taste of sweet ketchup and the texture of spam. I also think ketchup and rice are a weird combo but it works so well.

Likewise, for me, whose family moved from Seoul to Auckland in the early 1990s, spam reminds me of meals at home as a kid – a simple dish my parents could cook quickly (and cheaply). ) before going to work in the evening. I remember the spam was sliced, dipped in egg wash, fried in a pan, and served with rice. It was salty and it was fatty – what child could resist? I haven’t touched it since, probably because my tastes have completely westernized and also because the thought of eating a thick, gelatinous block of meat now makes me want to throw up.

Cans of spam on sale at a New Zealand supermarket (Photo: Jihee Junn)

“People who aren’t Asian or who don’t understand can be so mean about it,” says Roque, who points out that it’s difficult to talk about food with non-Asians who can often judge quickly.

“Like, they don’t get to the point where I’m like, ‘OK, relax because you’re starting to sound really racist now.’ That’s the same tone a lot of people have when they say that the Asians eat dog and shit, that disgusting thing that I would never touch… especially has woken up white people who want to be allies but who will so easily laugh at you for eating spam.

So while spam may be just an unhealthy and mysterious piece of meat to some and a secret symbol of US imperialism to others, it is also a showcase of culinary innovation and an icon. of complex histories and cultures. It can also be delicious if you cook it well. Don’t try to eat it raw canned like this guy.

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