Spam is probably not the healthiest or the tastiest food. However, some people have special memories with it. This tutorial will walk you through how to cook and eat spam in a way that a lot of people from Korea and Japan and also in slightly different forms in Hawaii,and Philippine and few other places might enjoy. I know my vegetarian and vegan friends will freak out about the idea of eating spam. I would not recommend eating Spam regularly, but if you are curious about the kind of lunch that’s typical in certain parts of the world, please enjoy the story.
Few years ago, I was living with roommates in a loft in Brooklyn. One uneventful evening, upon finding myself very hungry middle of the night, I walked to a local deli to get some food. I could not find anything to eat, other than a bag of rice and spam. I came back to the kitchen and cooked sliced spam and ate with rice and leftover salad. My roommate, from Australia, woke up and realized the beefy smell that filled up the loft was actually spam. She was horrified and since then called me ‘Spammy’ as an inside joke. I only realized then that many people find spam to be disgusting. I grew up in South Korea, where spam was a stable lunch side dish. Some time later, I had a chance to visit U.S Base towns in Korea for research and found Army stew (boodaejjigae) to be a fascinating postcolonial*( that is probably not a correct way to use the word, and maybe more specifically post U.S military occupation) cuisine. It is made of soup of Kimchi, potato, spam, sausage and some pork. The urban legend of Spam follows. Shortly after Japanese colonial occupation of South Korea ended, (right after surrender of the the Empire of Japan and the end of World War II, 1945), and Korean War(1950~53) multiple U.S. Bases were set up across Southern half of Korea. Spams were distributed via black market between soldiers selling their rations to local folks. This was the time when food was scarce and any source of protein was significantly valuable. Soon spams were imported in large quantity and it became a friendly side dish for families. My fascination with spam continued as I spoke with friends from Hawaii and other places that eat Spam. A friend from Hawaii, whose ancestors worked at the plantations, said people still eat spam back home.
My friend David Horvitz, who is an artist, and I were planning a dinner to recreate a meal portrayed at a painting in Metropolitan Museum. We could not find time to realize the idea, as he was flying off to Berlin. So we improvised and had a quick Korean - Japanese style lunch with Spam, Kimchi, Miso soup and seaweed speciality. This was in his apartment and only few hours before the flight. We talked about Spam, email Spam, paintings of Spam, and all the mix of military and culinary cultures of 20th century. David also published a book of his grandmother’s recipe.
Image credit: Actual Size, 1962, Edward Ruscha From LACMA website
Painting, Oil on canvas, 67 1/16 x 72 1/16 in
Step 1: Cooking Spam
1. Open the can.
2. Confirm with the cat ‘Demian’ that it’s okay to eat it.
3. Slice it to quarter inch thick.
4. On medium heat, cook the spam and when one side is brown and toasty, flip it. Spam produces a lot of grease, so it’s not necessary to put oil in the pan. It does help to absorb excessive grease with paper towel. There is no real technique in cooking spam. Make sure it doesn’t burn or go undercooked. Some people like it toasty.
Step 2: Other Dishes
A special treat from my friend’s mom is called Gimbugak (triple layers of seaweed pasted with sticky rice juice and sesame). You would heat it in a pan with a hint of oil, only until it becomes cripsy. Delicious Kimchi is from my mom who air shipped it as a present. Rice is simply white rice. Miso soup is by David, it had large shiitake mushrooms and pumpkins.
Our lunch was tasty and fun, I will probably not eat spam again for few years, but I’m still interested in learning more about cultural anecdotes regarding spam.