For many Americans, SPAM is a four-letter word for an annoying e-mail. In Hawaii, SPAM is a beloved comfort food, with cans of the jellylike pork blocks found in almost every cupboard.
And, it’s true: about 6 million cans of SPAM are eaten each year in Hawaii. That’s around 5 cans per person!
The amount of SPAM eaten is no joke. Purchase limits are usually set to just 5 cans per person, otherwise, stores run into constant shortages.
But, why do Hawaiians like SPAM so much? Isn’t it a poor man’s food? Doesn’t it taste terrible?
According to the SPAM website, Hawaii’s love affair with SPAM began in World War II, when the salty luncheon meat was given to squaddies due to its very long shelf life and lack of refrigeration needs. (SPAM is canned and has a shelf-life of approximately a trillion years). While you might find tastier dishes on Hawaiian dinner cruises, there’s no denying there’s a certain love affair with SPAM for locals.
The Hormel Corporation, which manufactures SPAM, provided 15 million cans to Allied troops every week, and between 1941 and 1945, Hormel had shipped over 100 million pounds of it overseas.
Though the name SPAM is an abbreviated version of spiced ham, the Army regulars would often call it “Special Army Meat.” Over time, SPAM made its way from soldiers packs into the diets of the natives throughout the Pacific. To this day, SPAM is still seen as a Hawaiian delicacy and can and is served with everything, from SPAM fried rice to SPAM and eggs.
You may not believe it, but SPAM is still very popular throughout the Islands, and has even been given its very own nickname, “hawaiian steak.” It can also be bought and eaten at your local Hawaiian McDonald’s or Burger King.
If that wasn’t enough, then make sure you visit during the last week of April for the annual SPAM Jam which takes place in Waikiki. 25,000 people annually visit, enjoying the weird and wonderful SPAM concoctions cooked up by the locals.
Still not convinced? Did you know that before taking office, Barack Obama, surprised reporters when he ordered SPAM Musubi while on vacation in Oahu? If it’s good enough for a president….
What Made it so Popular Though?
After the war, Hawaii had a huge population of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino migrant workers, all of whom had numerous approaches to integrating SPAM meat into their own cultural dishes. The resulting SPAM dishes were so good that the popularity of SPAM exploded.
Well known throughout the world as the “meat you eat when you’re trying to save”, or as an inferior food, SPAM, surprisingly still has a negative stigma today.
Eating SPAM seems to carry the same humiliation as shopping at a second-hand store or drinking wine at 9am.
In Hawaii, SPAM is not seen as bad at all. Yes, it’s inexpensive and low-quality meat, but in Hawaii, SPAM is still eaten by people both rich and poor, old and young.
Hawaiians Know How to Eat It…. Properly
Now deeply routed into Hawaii’s culinary rituals, SPAM seems to have no limitations in Hawaii.
But, from one SPAM eater to another;
Don’t eat it out of the can. EVER!
SPAM is in NO way meant to be eaten right out of the can, just as hot dogs are not meant to be eaten right out of the packet. If you eat SPAM right out of the can, it will taste like the soft, salty mess that it is. Locals and the professional SPAM eaters, all know that proper consumption of SPAM requires cooking first.
If you’ve ever gone steak shopping (and come on, who hasn’t?), you know that it’s important to find a cut of steak with a decent amount of fat on it (also called “marbling”). This is because when the steak is cooking, it’s the fat that keeps the meat moist, tender, and, more importantly, helps add to the flavor into the steak.
SPAM is similar in that it has a lot of fat, as well, and it’s only through cooking with heat that the delicious flavor and crimson-red coating of SPAM comes out.
There really is no limit to the amount of SPAM combos that have dreamed up. From eggs and SPAM topped with pineapple to SPAM macaroni and cheese or stir-fry, the possibilities with SPAM are endless.
And, did you know that more varieties of SPAM than ever are sold throughout Hawaii than anywhere else? It’s not unusual to see Garlic SPAM, along with Bacon SPAM, SPAM with Cheese, SPAM with Tabasco, Turkey SPAM and SPAM Lite. In the local store, they all sit on the same shelf at the local grocery store.
Rolling out an SPAM-markable Musubi
Whatever time of day, in Hawaii, a SPAM Musubi can be enjoyed. While many kama`aina (local residents) think that the best part of the SPAM Musubi is its delicious transportability, they’re also incredibly simple to roll out in the kitchen.
Musubi is often prepared by frying or grilling a slice of SPAM, normally sprinkled with a shoyu/soy sauce and sugar mixture. The cooked SPAM is then placed atop or crammed between rice and pressed into a quadrangular mold, then wrapped in nori (dried seaweed).
As individual as how you like your steak or eggs, a SPAM Musubi comes in all shapes and sizes. Some like to cut their SPAM slim and fry it ‘til it’s crispy. Others like a large chunk smothered in teriyaki sauce.
I’ve been told that a good rice to SPAM ratio is three cups of uncooked rice to one can of SPAM, sliced into eight to ten pieces. (Don’t take this as gospel though, I haven’t actually tried it this way myself!)
Originally made up of just SPAM, rice and nori; SPAM Musubi has taken on a form of its own and is enjoyed with not only scrambled eggs, but with takuan or other pickled vegetables. The possibilities really are endless!
How SPAM met the Musubi is still the stuff of local mystery. Many theorize that a plantation worker inevitably decided to create a local-style SPAM sandwich and suddenly the SPAM Musubi was born.
But, whatever the actual story is, SPAM and Hawaii will always be linked.
Whether you’re looking for a quick picnic at the beach, a light breakfast or just trying to dine like a local; then try SPAM in all its delicious and slightly strange forms.
Can’t get enough of SPAM? Check out this article, “Ditch the Ham, Grab the Spam”.
Want some great food along with great entertainment? Check out our top Hawaiian luau’s here.