There are few food items across the world as divisive as Spam, the small can of processed pork that inspires either love or revulsion.
I’m part of the Asian diaspora and for me, this very American product tastes like home. The story of Spam in Asian communities is a shared story of resourcefulness and resilience. It’s often difficult to articulate to people as they recoil in disgust, that Spam is not only delicious but is also viewed very differently in our parents’ home countries.
I share my love for the small, rectangular slab of canned pork with millions of Asians and Pacific Islanders across the globe. The use of Spam is ingrained in the regional cuisines of the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, which may seem inconsistent with local cooking styles, ingredients and techniques. So, how did this American tinned meat become embraced by so many cuisines?
Spam and noodles, Spam and rice, Spam and eggs. Spam has a long history as a convenience product, a food ration, a luxury item and a leftover from US colonialism. It was created in 1937 by Hormel Foods as a way of turning surplus pork shoulder into profit, and to fill a gap in the market for small portions of high quality deli meat with a long shelf life.
At the time, other companies were using waste products and offcuts like pork noses to make their deli meat, so Spam’s comparative high quality and affordability made it a hit with families struggling through the Great Depression. Its long shelf life and high protein content also made it an ideal military ration. That’s how Spam began its journey around the globe – as a wartime necessity. By the end of the second world war, the US government had bought about 68,000 metric tonnes of it, to feed its army and as aid for its allies.
After the second world war, Spam’s popularity waned in Europe, but remained hugely popular in the Asia-Pacific. In the Philippines, Spam was an expensive commodity sold in retail stores at US army bases, with one tin often costing almost an average daily wage. Its price and its overt “American-ness” was a large part of its appeal – having Spam or other imported canned goods in your pantry became a symbol of affluence.
In Hong Kong, where agricultural land (and therefore meat) was scarce and manufacturing was booming, cafes or cha chaan tengs cleverly combined Chinese cooking styles with luxurious, imported foods like Spam, butter and cheese, creating Cantonese interpretations of western fare for factory workers.
In Hawaii, the US military introduced Spam as an alternative source of protein when local people lost access to a major part of their diet with restrictions on Japanese-American off-shore fishing during the war. It now forms an intrinsic element of Hawaii cuisine.
The Korean war took Spam farther east. US soldiers bartered with Spam for information from local people left hungry by wartime shortages. It was also smuggled out from army bases along with sausages, baked beans and other canned goods. This period of scarcity gave rise to the now quintessential budae jjigae or “army base stew”, the perfect amalgamation of Korean cooking and American ingredients.
I grew up in Singapore, eating Spam as part of an “economy/curry rice” offering, with noodles or in fried rice, and at home, where my mum cooked it for us as a treat. Spam is most delicious when simply fried in a pan – salty, soft in the middle, with crispy golden edges. It’s the perfect textural contrast. When diced and stir-fried into rice or eggs, it gives glorious bursts of porky flavour. Simmered, it becomes exceedingly tender and absorbs the flavour of the broth, making it an ideal ingredient in a decadent, spicy stew.
Sure, Spam is a relic of American colonialism, but it’s also undeniably Asian. It’s a shining beacon of culinary innovation through hardship, and represents a complex history across many cultures. It’s also absolutely delicious.
A plant-based alternative
I know encouraging the consumption of a mass-produced meat product comes with huge ethical and environmental issues, but Asia’s love for Spam has also given rise to a brilliant plant-based luncheon meat product called OmniPork. It features as a plant-based “Spam” in McDonald’s in Hong Kong and Macau, and is even available in Australia. It looks and cooks just like Spam does – so feel free to substitute it in to my favourite Spam recipes below.
Army base stew (budae jjigae)
A rich, spicy relic from the Korean war, budae jjigae is the perfect fusion of traditional Korean flavours with western ingredients. Korean stews or jjigae are generally served sharing-style at the table over a portable stove, but can also be cooked on the stovetop and brought to the table. This is a wonderful dish to enjoy with a group.
For this recipe, you’ll need gochujang and gochugaru, which are Korean red pepper paste and flakes. Both can be found in well stocked supermarkets and Asian grocers.
Prep 10 min
Cook 15 min
For the stew
½ can (170g) Spam, sliced
4 cocktail frankfurt sausages or similar, sliced
200g soft tofu, sliced
2 spring onions, cut into 3cm lengths
2 king oyster mushrooms, split lengthwise
½ bunch enoki mushrooms, trimmed
500ml hot stock, plus more to top up
1 slice American cheese
1 packet instant noodles
½ brown onion, sliced
100g sliced rice cakes
1 tbsp baked beans (optional)
For the sauce
3 tbsp gochugaru
2 tbsp gochujang
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp soju or similar rice wine
Mix the ingredients for the sauce together in a small bowl and set aside.
Assemble the ingredients in a wide, shallow saucepan in layers, starting with the sliced brown onion, mushrooms, kimchi and sauce. Arrange the spam, sausages, baked beans and tofu over the top, pour the stock over the dish and bring to a boil, covered on medium heat. Allow to boil for four to five minutes.
Turn the heat down to a simmer, and add the rice cakes and instant noodles without the flavour sachet. Remove the lid and continue cooking. Top with cheese and serve in individual bowls. Add more stock to thin the stew as it continues to cook down.
Hong Kong-style Spam and egg macaroni soup
Macaroni soup and Spam sit among thick french toast, scrambled egg in pineapple buns, and dim sum as part of Hong Kong’s unique breakfast offering. It’s quick and convenient to prepare, kid-friendly and comforting.
Prep 10 min
Cook 10 min
100g elbow macaroni
1cm ginger, peeled and sliced
750ml chicken stock
½ can (170g) Spam, sliced
1 spring onion, sliced
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 bunch baby bok choy, split lengthwise and blanched
Sesame oil, to serve
Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a medium saucepan, and stir-fry the sliced ginger until fragrant and golden (one to two minutes). Add the chicken stock, soy sauce and oyster sauce and bring to the boil. Add the macaroni and cook for seven to eight minutes, following the packet instructions.
While the macaroni is cooking, heat the remaining one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and pan-fry the Spam until golden brown on both sides. Remove the Spam and set aside, then fry the eggs in the same pan.
To assemble, divide the macaroni and soup into two bowls, top with slices of Spam, the bok choy, an egg each and sliced spring onions. Ladle more soup over the top, sprinkle with a little sesame oil, and serve.
Spam, potato and green chilli fritters
These potato fritters are enormously addictive. I can eat five or six in one sitting before the guilt kicks in. Use a good all-rounder potato for this dish, like a desiree or dutch cream.
Prep 20 min
Cook 20 min
Makes 14 fritters
1kg desiree potatoes, peeled
1 can Spam
1 egg, beaten
½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
3 spring onions, green part only, finely chopped
3 long green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cut the potatoes into 3-4cm pieces and cook in boiling water until tender.
Strain and steam dry, mash and allow to cool briefly. Add the Spam and mash thoroughly, then fold in the egg, spring onion, parsley and green chilli. Season with salt and white pepper to taste.
In a heavy-bottom or nonstick frying pan heat enough oil to reach 3cm in depth.
Shape the mix into patties, 5cm in diameter, and place directly and gently into the hot oil. Fry for four to five minutes until golden brown and crisp, turning only once. Serve immediately.
Sisig is a Philippine dish of crispy grilled and chopped pork (usually pig’s head and belly) with chicken livers, in a bright and acidic marinade.
Classic sisig features papaya, green mango, fish and other meats, but the modern variety came about from Filipinos cleverly repurposing excess pork from US Clark airbase in Pampanga. Traditional sisig requires several stages of cooking, but this recipe only needs one. The flavourful dressing is the perfect match for the fatty, crispy meat. Serve on a sizzling hotplate if you have one, with plenty of steamed rice.
Prep 10 min
Cook 15 min
2 cans (680g) Spam, cut into 2cm dice
½ red onion, diced
2 birds eye chillies, sliced
1 green chilli, sliced
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp calamansi lime juice, calamansi limes are sometimes available online and from specialty grocers; if you can’t find them – and don’t have a friendly Filipino neighbour to ask – this can be substituted for regular lime
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 egg yolk, optional
Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the Spam and fry over medium-high heat until the it is crispy and golden.
Transfer the crispy Spam into a bowl and combine with the diced onion, chilli, fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar and season with black pepper to taste. Heat a sizzling plate or pan until smoking, add a dab of butter and serve the sisig directly on the hotplate.