If there was ever a famous food product to have occupied both highbrow and lowbrow spaces, it has to be Spam. Invented in the 1930s, it became a staple during World War II when it was sent to military personnel abroad. A food stained by war, though, is bound to become unpopular amongst those forced to eat it, and many American GIs, upon their return home, refused to consume it. In the United States, Spam unfortunately fell from grace for many years. But it wasn’t long before the canned meat was exported to parts of Asia, where Japanese, Korean and Hawaiian chefs transformed it by adding it to stews and onigiri.
When these dishes found their way back across the ocean, Spam saw a resurgence in both casual and fine-dining restaurants as well as in home pantries. It’s now celebrated as an inexpensive and nostalgic indulgence that can be used to add a pop of salty umami flavor to a variety of rich dishes. Have a can of the processed pork loaf in your pantry? Here are some of the best uses for Spam:
Budae jjigae, which translates to “army stew,” is one of the best examples of how war shapes cuisine. The spicy, now-classic Korean stew combines Spam along with other processed meats, noodles, an assortment of vegetables and often a slice of American cheese. Ho Gi-suk, a restaurant owner, lays claim to the dish: Smuggled foods, including Spam, were reportedly taken from a U.S. army base during the Korean war and simmered together into a salty, savory, spicy stew. The fusion of Korean and American flavors makes for an intensely flavored treat.
Perhaps one of the most famous Spam-based dishes in the world, Spam musubi may just represent the platonic ideal of Spam culture. Spam, rice and nori come together to create a Hawaiian onigiri that’s easy to take on the go. Japanese migrants to Hawaii are thought to be responsible for this holy mingling of foods that has now made its way to the mainland. While it may not be widely available in convenience stores in the contiguous U.S. just yet, I would personally choose Spam musubi over roller food any day. It’s simple but sophisticated, and the flavor of the Spam is really allowed to shine.
During World War II, Spam was largely seen as a main dish, a replacement for fresh protein that was often difficult or expensive to source. But in the decades after the war ended, Spam moved from a centerpiece to more of a side dish, becoming a component of sandwich recipes rather than standing on its own. It was at this time that Spam and eggs started to gain traction as a breakfast food. It’s undeniable that this combo makes an incredibly filling breakfast, and the salty fattiness of the Spam complements eggs perfectly. Adding some acidity to this dish can make it pop even more: I love a generous drizzle of hot sauce on mine.
Beef Wellington is a dish that hails from England. It’s a beef filet coated with pâté and then wrapped in puff pastry. It’s a delicious meat plus carb combo, but did you know you can make this classic dish with Spam? Spam Wellington is mostly made the same way, though some cooks add mushrooms or spinach to make it a bit lighter and to give it some extra texture. The crisp crust of puff pastry plays exceptionally well with the fatty, salty meat, coming together to create a questionably fancy main dish for a dinner party. Just maybe don’t tell your guests that it contains Spam until after they congratulate you on how good it tastes.
It may go without saying that Spam fried rice is an excellent way to use up the leftover Spam in your fridge, but I’m going to include it anyway since it’s one of my all-time favorite Spam-centric meals. Add it to your wok along with eggs, veggies and day-old rice, and you’ve got the leftover flavor mashup of your dreams. The trick here is making sure the Spam gets as crispy as possible so you get an extra touch of texture in every bite. While it’s easy to riff on this dish, scallions are absolutely essential for adding some freshness to the otherwise fat-heavy meal.
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer, editor and occasional oyster slinger based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.