Spam, the block of chopped pork shoulder and pork ham pressed together into a nicely sized can. While it may not sound like much, some may even criticize it, Spam is enjoyed by many around the globe.
In 1937, manufacturer Hormel Foods, produced Spam. Spam was created toward the end of the Great Depression to provide affordable meat products to the American population.
But if Spam was made for the Americans, how did it end up halfway across the world in Asian cuisines? The answer has to do with the darker sides of world history. Spam is prevalent in Asian and Pacific Island countries directly because of the worldwide food scarcity that resulted from World War II.
Spam and American GIs
While Spam was on the American market since 1937, it did not become widespread until World War II began. Spam, and other canned meats, are a great source of high-calorie protein. Canned meat is also an inexpensive product. It is portable, has a long-shelf life, and is perfect for shipping overseas. So, the US military bought varieties of canned meats, including Spam, to feed millions of American troops that were overseas.
But this convenience for the government meant that troops were eating canned meats with all of their meals. Eventually, American GIs grew tired of Spam. Spam became an undesired food and was even referred as “the real reason war was hell” by some.
As American soldiers traveled across European and Asian countries, so did Spam.
Spam In Asia and the Pacific Islands
American GIs were not known to enjoy eating Spam. But to other parts of the world, Spam was a desired product. Many Asian regions were facing food scarcity because of the war. So, to them, Spam was an essential source of protein. Spam aided in their survival. But, as you will see by these dishes, difficult times does not mean that the food must be bland.
South Korean cuisine
Korean budae jjigae, which literally translates to “army base stew”, is the perfect example of American influence on Korean cuisine. This stew combines American ingredients (spam, sausages, baked beans, and cheese) with traditionally Korean ingredients (gochujang, gochugaru, and soy sauce). This dish is still popular in American military bases stationed in Korea. Additionally, it is considered a classic entrée in Korean cuisine.
The history of budae jjigae is from sorrowful origins, as is every dish in this article. However, budae jjigae is the perfect reflection of the fusion of cuisines and unity between cultures in difficult times.
Anther cuisine that is known for its incorporation of spam are in the Philippines.
Although the Philippines are now a sovereign state, it is a former U.S. colony. Meaning that American GIs were frequently stationed there. Being tired of canned meats, the GIs often tossed cans of Spam from their trucks toward the starving people. Sometimes, Spam was used as reward or payment for services. Picking up the cans, or being given cans, the Filipino people cooked dishes that incorporate Spam. When the war ended, Spam became a cultural symbol between the US and the Philippines. A breakfast favorite, Spamsilog, is regularly enjoyed in Filipino households.
In Hong Kong, Spam was used as rations. Like in Korea and the Philippines, meat was scarce and expensive. So, the people relied on the the cheapness and versatility of Spam. With the end of the war, Spam was the only form of meat available. So, Spam was continued to be served in dishes from noodles and rice to sandwiches.
Hong Kong style macaroni soup incorporates cubes of spam alongside an egg and veggies.
Similarly, Okinawa, Japan, was occupied by the US military in 1945. The presence of the American military meant that Spam was introduced to Japanese culture. Japanese cuisine incorporated Spam into rice and noodle dishes to enhance flavor and nutritional value.
Spam musubi is fried spam, placed on top of sticky rice, and wrapped in a slice of nori seaweed. The same ingredients can also be used to make spam rice balls (onigiri). Spam musubi and onigiri are still commonly seen in bento boxes.
Spam was born in America but raised around the world.Jennesa Kinscher, senior branch manager of Spam at Hormel Foods
While Spam’s popularity in America and Europe decreased after the end of World War II, the product remains popular across Asia and the Pacific Islands. In come Asian countries, Spam is still considered premium and companies sell Spam as gift sets. In Korea, the second largest consumer of Spam outside of the U.S., individuals can purchase Spam gift sets during major holidays like Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal (Lunar New Year). Other Asian regions also have a similar tradition of giving friends and family Spam gift sets. Spam is a treasured ingredient that can be found in many stores, restaraunts, and homes across Asian countries.
It is well known that Spam isn’t as loved in the West as it is in Asian cuisine. But for some people, it is more than a canned meat. It represents a time, a people, and their culture.