People have, at times, called me a “food snob.” I can see why they might think that. I do enjoy from time to time high quality food substances that the vast majority of consumers have rarely heard of. But a lot of the things that I also enjoy would be grounds for revoking my foodie club membership card. Swedish fish, McDonald’s chicken nuggets, french fries with mashed potatoes, etc etc. Of course among this hypertension-inducing Justice League of junk foods there is a first among equals, a Superman of edible but unhealthy substances that I refuse to give up. Yes, it’s that salty gelatinous pork composite in a blue and yellow tin that has captured the hearts and stomaches of many Asian countries and in particular, Korea. I’m talking about Spam. After all, you can’t spell Superman without Spam.
Much has been made about the elevation of Spam in Korean culture. Articles are written almost annually in Western websites about the luxury gift sets of Spam that are sold at high-end department stores every holiday season and commercials with Korean celebrities claiming that Spam is all you need for a meal with white rice. These descriptions of a culture that worships a canned meat product synonymous with shitty advertisement emails and early onset heart diseases seem at odds with a country that also happens to be obsessed with staying skinny, healthy, and beautiful. I guess there’s always liposuction for those who enjoy too much Spam, but still, it doesn’t make much sense.
That is, until you look at Korea’s history. A lot of the foods that characterize modern Korean cuisine were introduced to Korea by certain historical events, usually wars or occupations. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, same goes for most world cuisines. You couldn’t imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, but those didn’t show up in Italy until after Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire, slightly before the chili pepper was introduced to Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces. Like the chili pepper, Spam is a product that was introduced by a foreign military, the Americans. After the Korean War, most of Korea was devastated and there were few opportunities if any for the vast majority of Koreans to eat anything with meat in it. But there were places where one could obtain animal protein. Those were the American PXs which sprung up wherever the American soldiers were stationed, which after the Korean War was practically everywhere. Of course, there wasn’t fresh meat at the PXs, logistically it would be too difficult to ship that all the way from the States across the Pacific Ocean to Korea and the other American army bases scattered throughout Asia following World War II. But there were tins of processed pork that could be cheaply manufactured and shipped to wherever the US military needed to be. The GIs might have gotten sick of Spam and bacon and sausages all the time, but these were highly sought after products for Koreans for whom Spam was perhaps the only available meat in a destitute war-torn country. It became seen as a rare product that was available only to those with connections with the US Army or those who could afford it on the black market. Although Korea has grown out of the recently-freedomed phase of economic development, this initial image as a luxury product persisted, hence it being part of expensive gift sets in the present day.
So Spam is a legacy of the American military presence and the difficult situation of Korea following the Korean War. That might explain why Spam has a special place in the Korean cultural psyche, but it doesn’t quite explain why it has stayed there. Sure, some explanations might point to the fetishization of a more difficult past and nostalgia for simpler times and whatever, but let’s be honest, there’s only one logical reason: Spam is fucking delicious. It’s salty, fatty, creamy but wonderfully crispy when pan-fried. Spam captures what’s great about pork in a cheap, easy-to-carry tin. It’s a perfect complement to the spicy and sour flavors in many Korean dishes. You can add it to practically anything! Cubes of Spam plopped into a kimchi-jjigae (stew), slices of Spam coated in egg batter and pan-fried in oil, Spam diced and put into Korean-style rolled omelettes, strips of Spam in gimbap, I could go on and on like Bubba in Forrest Gump. But you don’t even need to get fancy with it. Just get yourself a bowl of sticky white rice, some sour kimchi, and a few slices of Spam fried in a pan, and you’ve got a pretty great meal.
Although Cheil Jedang is the official manufacturer of Spam in Korea (and alleges that they use higher quality ingredients than those used by the Hormel Food Corporation in the United States, which if true I guess would make Korean Spam the Mexican Coke of Spams?), the popularity of Spam has spawned several brands of knockoffs from various Korean food corporations, usually under a generic name like lunchmeat or ham. This is where my alleged food snobbery rears its ugly, discerning head. No, it’s worse than snobbery; it’s downright Spamish fundamentalism. I believe that Spam is the One True Precooked Meat Product Made with Pork Shoulder and Ham, and all other similar products are heretical abominations. For one, they commit the cardinal sin of not tasting that good. Usually it ends up having a flavor and texture somewhere between Spam and honey glazed ham, which believe me, taste better separately. I’m guessing these companies sacrificed flavor in an attempt to make it healthier, but when you’re dealing with mystery meat products, let’s face it, consumers aren’t looking at the nutrition tables. If you’re attempting to emulate the appeal of Spam, you’d better go for that full-throttle artery-clogging sodium-overload goodness.
I’m sure that many people will never understand the appeal of Spam. Sure, they might eat a little while trying out Hawaiian Spam musubi or a Korean military stew, but it will never become a passion like it is for me or for many people of Asian descent. Spam is ingrained in the culinary DNA of all of the Asian countries that had an American military presence in the 20th century, whether it be Korea, Japan, or the Philippines. People who haven’t grown up with Spam will probably wonder why everything isn’t substituted with something real and porky like bacon, but Spam is Spam, and bacon is bacon (and I assure you, we also value our pork belly, but we eat it all grilled because we love it so much that we can’t be bothered to take the time to cure it into bacon). I realize that I’ve just invited a tsunami of controversy by raising the mere possibility of substituting Spam with bacon or vice versa (a delicious pork-filled tsunami but a tsunami nonetheless), but I’ll just kill that problem with an artery-destroying proposal: why not both?