It’s time for the rest of America to catch up with Hawaii. Though Hawaii’s love of Spam is the product of historical forces, there’s nothing outdated about appreciating the canned meat. In fact, Spam is a paragon of modern foodie ideals.
Consider that Spam contains not only ham (meat from the hind leg of the pig) but also pork shoulder. Today, pork shoulder is beloved by chefs and home cooks, but when Spam first hit the shelves, it was an underutilized and underappreciated cut. Hormel took that underrated meat and transformed it into a salty, meaty treat. “It’s a centuries-old idea,” says Hawaiian chef Alan Wong, who pays homage to Spam in his eponymous Honolulu restaurant. “You get all your trimmings and you turn them into sausage or a meatloaf or pâté or a terrine.” I’ve never seen a meat-eater turn up his nose at sausage or pâté—what rational basis is there, then, for eschewing their all-American cousin?
In fact, Spam is even simpler a concoction than most pâtés—it almost passes Michael Pollan’s five-ingredient test. (In In Defense of Food, Pollan argues that, to avoid eating too many processed foods, you shouldn’t buy anything containing more than five ingredients.) I’m not here to argue that Spam’s secretly been a health food all these years, but consider this: Hot dogs, which Americans eat with abandon, contain around 15 ingredients, many of them obscure chemicals. Spam contains six: pork (shoulder and ham), salt, water, sugar, sodium nitrite, and potato starch. (The last of these forms the goo on Spam that grosses some people out.) Sodium nitrite, which preserves meat and prevents bacterial growth, has a bad rap but its effects on health aren’t fully understood (and, in any event, we consume more nitrites from vegetables than from cured meats).
And thanks to Spam’s simplicity, it makes a wonderful ingredient in its own right. Chef Gordon Ramsay gave voice to a common misperception last year when he said he decided to become a chef to escape the “sliced, disgusting fucking Spam” his mother often served when he was a child. Well, if you serve “Spam straight out of a can” the way Ramsay says his mother did, you’re doing it wrong. Spam is fully cooked and technically comes ready to serve, but only the unimaginative stop there.
For creative cooks, a can of Spam is as versatile of a blank slate as a chicken breast. Wong incorporates house-made Spam, which he calls Spong (“when Spam meets Wong”) into several dishes at his upscale restaurant. He serves it in tortillas with classic taco garnishes, sandwiches it in baguettes for bành mì, and rolls it into Spam meatballs.
Hiura prefers to serve Spam like bacon: sliced extra thin, fried until brown and crispy, and eaten with eggs and rice. He also likes to prepare it with a teriyaki-like sauce and stir-fry it with vegetables, or eat it with saimin (Hawaii’s version of ramen). Hawaiian fast-food restaurants offer tasty Spam-based recipe ideas, too: You can buy it alongside Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice in a McDonald’s breakfast platter and in a Croissan’wich at Burger King.
But if you’re looking for the most iconic Hawaiian Spam dish, look no further than Spam musubi—basically, Spam rice balls. “It has taken over as the favorite way to eat Spam,” says Ann Kondo Corum, whose Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook and its sequel are local best-sellers. She dedicated an entire section to Spam musubi varieties in the second book. The essential formulation consists of a block of white rice (molded in either a special musubi mold or the bottom of an empty Spam can), topped with a slice of fried and seasoned Spam, all wrapped in a strip of dried nori (seaweed).
In other words, Spam musubi looks a lot like sushi—and that comparison may be instructive. Just a few short decades ago, most Americans wouldn’t have dreamt of eating raw fish. Today, sushi is ubiquitous. It’s amazing how delicious the results can be when you open your mind.