The SPAM You Never Knew

Exploring Asia’s Beloved Comfort Food in New York City

By Lily Chin

Onex

(Photographs by Lily Chin)

In the United States, SPAM® is sometimes associated with economic hardship. But in many Asian cultures, Hormel’s “canned meat product,” made from chopped pork shoulder and ham, is a beloved comfort food that’s eaten as a special treat—and even served in luxury restaurants. If you know where to look in New York City, you can find some of these dishes in a variety of restaurants.

During World War II, when fresh meat was scarce, SPAM® was a main meat source for American soldiers fighting overseas. Soft, fatty, and juicy when fried, it tastes more like baloney than ham and—in texture—resembles a softer, smoother version of meatloaf.

Surplus SPAM® rations were often shared with locals, who incorporated it into their traditional cooking. The result: Spam musubi, Spam and egg macaroni noodle soup, Spam fries, budae jjigae (army stew), and other popular Asian dishes in which this all-American ingredient plays a defining role.

Spam musubi is a popular Hawai’ian snack found in convenience stores all over the islands. A thick slice of SPAM® is pan-fried or grilled with a teriyaki glaze until crisp, placed onto a block of soft sushi rice, and wrapped in a sheet of nori (seaweed). This Hawaiian variant of Japanese omusubi is on the menu at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Lower Manhattan and Tokyo Teriyaki in Forest Hills, Queens.

SPAM® made its way to Hong Kong with the British in the 1940s, after Hormel began selling it in England. It quickly became a key ingredient in Spam and egg macaroni noodle soup, a dish commonly served in the city’s cha chaan teng (tea restaurants)—British-style cafes serving drinks and simple food.

Modern cha chaan teng, such as S Wan Cafe in Manhattan Chinatown, typically serve milk tea, snacks like toast topped with condensed milk, and more substantial noodle dishes. S Wan Café’s version of this standard dish combines boiled macaroni pasta in a light chicken broth, topped with a fried egg and two slices of fried SPAM®. Nibbled in between bites of macaroni and broth, the pink slices of soft meat give this simple, mild dish a  savory, ham-like finish.

A luxury item in the Philippines during the 1980s (and found only in high-end supermarkets), SPAM® is still a beloved part of Filipino cuisines. Maharlika, a Filipino restaurant in the East Village, employs the pink meat in a popular snack: beer-battered Spam fries.

The fried SPAM® has a crisp exterior and a chewy, oily interior—like juicy ham jerky with a fried crust. The fries are served with mildly sweet, ketchup-like banana sauce. They’re also great with a dash of Maharlika’s house-made garlic-infused vinegar (served to every table), which cuts through the fat and complements the mildly sweet banana sauce. It’s heavy comfort food at its best.

In South Korea budae jjigae (army stew) is a beloved late-night dish, usually eaten after a night of drinking. It combines SPAM® with sausage, ground meat, baked beans, kimchi, seasonal vegetables, and thin, crimped ramen noodles in a thick, spicy gochujang-based (Korean red pepper paste) broth.

The dish originated in the early 1950s, after the Korean War, when food was scarce in South Korea. Locals took surplus American army rations—such as SPAM®, hot dogs, and baked beans—combined them with traditional seasonings and cooking techniques, and called these dishes Johnson tang (soup)—a nod to that common American surname.

Eventually SPAM® became so popular among South Koreans that several domestic manufacturers began producing it, using higher quality meat. Even today, gift boxes with the canned meat—sold in supermarkets throughout South Korea—are a common gift for coworkers or party hosts.

In New York City, budae jjigae is available at Pocha 32, where it is served in a huge, family-style portion that easily feeds five to six people. At ($27), it’s a pricey dish—even by Koreatown standards. But if you own a large pot and have some spare time, cooking it at home (recipe here) is an easy and truly cheap option.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
64 Fulton St. (map)
New York, NY 10038

Maharlika
111 1st Ave. (map)
New York, NY 10003

Pocha 32
15 W. 32nd St. (map)
New York, NY 10001

S Wan Cafe
85 Eldridge St. (map)
New York, NY 10002

Tokyo Teriyaki
68-60 Austin St. (map)
Forest Hills, NY 11375


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