by Jody Shee
Any chef worth his or her salt wanting to experiment with the Hawaiian cuisine trend will dabble with SPAM. After all, Hormel’s canned lunch meat is as Hawaiian as poke, Portuguese sausage and kalua pork. As regional comfort food goes, SPAM ranks right up there with loco moco.
Last year Hawaiians consumed 7 million cans of SPAM; more than any other state, says Ken Alston, Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel’s corporate executive chef. “It’s still a growing brand,” he notes, considering that more SPAM was sold in 2018 than any prior year.
Developed in 1937, SPAM was thrust into fame during World War II as a military mess tent staple. The huge military contingency in Hawaii required a shelf-stable protein due to a lack of refrigerators. “It stuck with the islanders,” Alston says. So much so that for one Saturday each April, Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu becomes home to the Waikiki SPAM JAM® street festival where restaurants set up booths to showcase their creativity.
SPAM may not be on the regular menu at Noi Thai Cuisine in Honolulu, but for SPAM JAM, it becomes an ingredient in executive chef Jutamas Kanjanamai’s popular pineapple fried rice. She infuses jasmine rice with yellow curry and adds pineapple for sweetness, cashews, raisins and onions. At the restaurant, guests can choose to add chicken, tofu, pork, beef, shrimp or seafood. But for the festival, SPAM is a given.
“It totally changes the personality of the dish,” Kanjanamai says. With the high sodium content, it’s unnecessary to add salt to the fried rice like she normally does. “SPAM gives it a soft texture and a local flavor.”
SPAM JAM is like a contest between chefs to see who can come up with the most creative item, says Matthew Small, CEC, corporate executive chef for foodservice distributor Y. Hata & Co., Limited in Honolulu and ACF Honolulu chapter president. He has seen SPAM mousse, tacos, cheesecake and ice cream. Among the offerings at the April 27 festival are mango BBQ SPAM sliders, SPAM fries, SPAM loaded tater tots, handmade ice pops with SPAM and SPAM lo mein noodles.
Normally, SPAM isn’t a menu consideration at an upscale restaurant in Hawaii. It’s the stuff of local-style, traditional Hawaiian food, Small says. But one of its most authentic uses that leaves room for creative license on all levels is SPAM musubi, often eaten as a snack or for lunch. In its most basic form, musubi is a slice of grilled SPAM atop a block of pressed rice, all wrapped in nori. It can also include cooked egg and a sauce.
7-Elevens throughout Hawaii sell various renditions of musubi in the hot prepared foods case near the cash register, as well as multiple rows of it in the refrigerated section.
On the mainland, musubi is the SPAM vehicle at modern Hawaiian-cuisine themed Noreetuh in New York City. The menu features SPAM musubi with truffle mayo and shaved black truffles as well as spicy SPAM musubi with pickled jalapeño and soy mayo.
Unlike most packaged foods, SPAM does not come in a larger foodservice size. The 12-ounce size and shape are iconic, even when sliced. “If there was a foodservice size, you’d lose that brand recognition,” Small says.
Of the 15 SPAM flavors available, garlic is the latest release, though classic is the most popular with its versatility, Hormel’s Alston says. Contrary to popular belief, SPAM is not made of by-products. Rather, it features pork loin, pork butt, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite. For a sweet and salty flavor profile, Alston includes SPAM in cookie dough and tops glazed doughnuts with it.