IT’S often derided as inedible, and a symbol of all the wrongs perpetrated against food, but love it or hate it, there’s no denying Spam is one of the most iconic and lasting food brands still on our supermarket shelves.
Spam first appeared in 1937, a processed combination of pork shoulder, ham, water, starch, salt and preservatives. Its affordability and long shelf life boosted its popularity during the last years of the Great Depression, but it was the commencement of World War II that elevated Spam into the iconic staple it still is.
By the end of WWII, the US army had purchased almost 75 million kilograms of Spam for its troops, and it’s the continued distribution of the small tins of ‘ham’ during military action that have seen Spam make a culinary impact in some unusual places.
While many of us are familiar with Spam through either the pantries of our grandparents or the collected works of Monty Python, it has developed an almost obsessive following in places like Hawaii and South Korea.
In the former, it’s celebrated with a sushi-like snack called ‘Spam Masubi’, a fascinating fusion of American and Japanese influences.
Spam Jam, a festival of Spam, also takes place in Waikiki every year, with restaurants and cafes competing to use the tinned meat in innovative and delicious new ways.
Spam’s presence in South Korea is even more intriguing. Towards the end of the Korean War, displaced locals in many decimated villages were given intermittent handouts of food from US Army bases. These would commonly include cheese slices, hot dogs, baked beans, instant noodles and, of course, Spam.
In one of the more chaotic but impressive examples of ‘cuisine fusion’, Koreans developed a dish that combined these ingredients with their own gochujang (Korean chilli paste), rice noodles, tofu and kimchi. Called ‘budae jjigae’, or ‘troop stew’, it became affectionately known as Army Base Stew, an unusual dish with a cult following around the world.
Today, Koreans value Spam as a luxury rather than a necessity. Celebrities appear in television commercials for the tinned meat, and markets even sell gold-trimmed gift boxes full of tins of Spam — considered the ultimate lunar thanksgiving gift.
In anticipation of Spam’s 80th birthday next year, we’ve gathered the recipes for Hawaiian Spam Masubi and Korean Army Base Stew, as well as creating a few of our own.
While it may not be the height of culinary sophistication, Spam is far more than a punchline. With 80 years of history behind it, a part in WWII and an avid following in some unlikely places, Spam might be just as “lovely!” and “wonderful!” as Monty Python always suggested.
SPAM CHIPS WITH PAPRIKA MAYONNAISE
1 tin Spam
Chilli flakes (optional)
75ml (3 tbsp) mayonnaise
3 tsp smoked paprika
Preheat oven to 150C.
Remove Spam from tin and slice as thinly as possible. Rest a roasting rack or cake rack over a baking tray, spray with olive oil spray, and carefully lay slices of Spam taking care to ensure they don’t overlap. Dust with a little white pepper.
Transfer tray to oven, and after 10 minutes, carefully turn each piece of Spam. Cook until Spam has dried out and become crispy- approximately 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool (the Spam chips will continue to get crispier as they cool down). Sprinkle chips with a little salt and chilli flakes.
Combine the mayonnaise and paprika in a small bowl. Serve.
SPAM ‘CORDON BLEU’
1 tin Spam
6 slices ham
6 slices good melting cheese
½ cup tomato pasta sauce
1 cup flour
Oil for deep frying
Cut the Spam into 1cm thick slices. Cut the ham and cheese to the same size and shape.
Spread a thin layer of pasta sauce on one side of the Spam, lay the cheese slice over it, followed by the ham.
Prepare three flat bowls — one with the flour, one with the egg (lightly beaten), one with the breadcrumbs.
Carefully coat the prepared Spam slice in the flour, being sure to cover each side, and dusting off any excess. Coat with the egg, again ensuring the whole slice is covered. Finally coat it with breadcrumbs. Place on a plate sprinkled with extra breadcrumbs and repeat with the remaining Spam slices.
Heat oil in a fryer or heavy-based saucepan to 175C. Carefully lower one of the crumbed Spam slices into the oil and cook until golden brown, taking care not to move it too much (to prevent it falling apart).
Remove from oil and rest on a few sheets of kitchen paper.
Repeat with the remaining slices. Sprinkle with a little salt and serve.
SPAM MASUBI RECIPE (SPAM SUSHI)
1 tin Spam
1 cup sushi rice*
3 tbsp sushi rice seasoning*
2 tbsp teriyaki sauce*
1x sheet nori paper*
*Sushi rice, rice seasoning, teriyaki sauce and nori paper are available from the Asian section of your supermarket and from Asian grocers.
Rinse sushi rice until water runs clear, transfer to a saucepan and add 1½ cups cold water. Bring to a boil, then cover with lid, lower heat and simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from heat, stir with a fork to loosen rice grains, replace lid and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
Stir the sushi seasoning through the rice and leave until rice is cool enough to handle.
Cut the Spam into 1cm thick slices, brush both sides with teriyaki sauce, and fry over a medium heat until brown.
Line a rinsed Spam tin with plastic wrap and press rice into it to form the perfect shape, roughly 1 inch thick. Pull out wrap and rice, then lay the Spam slice carefully over the top and discard the plastic. Repeat with remaining slices.
Using scissors, cut the nori into 2cm wide strips. Wrap a strip around each Spam/rice bundle, leaving the join on the bottom so it all stays together.
Serve with Japanese mayonnaise and wasabi.
ARMY BASE STEW
1 tin Spam, cut into 1cm cubes or ½ cm slices
2 hot dogs, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 packet instant noodles (seasoning packet discarded)
150g baked beans
200g beef mince
100g fresh shiitake mushrooms
100g cooked rice noodles
150g firm tofu, cut into 1cm cubes
½ cup kimchi*
4 cheese slices
1.5L chicken stock
50g gochujang (Korean chilli paste)*
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp caster sugar
Spring onion, red onion and red chilli to serve, thinly sliced
*Kimchi and gochujang are available from Asian grocers
Combine gochujang, garlic, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil in a bowl, then add beef mince. Stir and set aside.
Fry Spam in a little oil until brown.
Arrange instant noodles, hot dog pieces, tofu, mushrooms, kimchi, Spam and baked beans in a casserole dish or deep saucepan.
In a separate saucepan, combine chicken stock, beef mince and marinade and bring to a boil. Pour carefully into casserole dish, then simmer over low/medium heat for 10 minutes or until all ingredients are heated through.
Divide cooked rice noodles into 4 separate bowls, then ladle the stew over the noodles. Top with a slice of cheese in each bowl and sprinkle with red onion, spring onion and chilli.
Tristan Lutze is a food writer, photographer, and very recent Spam convert. Find him on Facebook and Instagram.