Again with the SPAM

My grandfather had a full on, no-holds barred, fanatical obsession with SPAM. After spending time on the USS Antietam in the South Pacific right after World War II, he came home with cans and cans of the stuff. Despite (or perhaps because of) its questionable categorization as edible food, Grandpa Loren maintained his fierce allegiance to the ham for the rest of his life. When we were cleaning out his house after he died in 2009, we found cans of decades old SPAM tucked in between the canned beans, spices, and chicken stock in the pantry.

Granted, he was not only an avid collector of the “food,” he also had SPAM merchandise peppered throughout his kitchen and closet. He even had a SPAM hat that he wore whenever his Scottish tartan flat cap seemed inappropriate. I remember trying on the hat, passing it around between siblings, and giggling at the silliness of the word. Actually eating the ham never came up.

Well, almost. Over one holiday visit when I was probably about 9 or 10, Grandpa Loren got the grand idea to recreate the SPAM sushi (or SPAMushi in our family) he had eaten, I assume, in the Navy. I had heard of “regular” sushi before but as a picky eater, I had never entertained the idea of eating anything so raw, fishy, and … weird. Perhaps, I must have thought, sushi made from something recognizable (SPAM is still sort of ham, after all) would taste okay.

The adults sliced the SPAM, fiddled with the square musubi mold, and turned out strange green and brown wraps, filled mostly with rice. I bravely reached in for my roll and took a small bite. It was one of the worst things my young palate had tasted. I spit out the half eaten clump of sushi, shuddered, and handed the remainder back to the insane adults actually enjoying themselves.

Despite the frequent appearances of the SPAM hat, I managed to block this traumatizing young memory from the front of my mind until a few weeks ago. An Iron Chef America rerun came on while I was folding clothes; this particular episode took place in Hawaii and Michael Symon decided to include a slab of “magical ham” in one of his dishes. All of a sudden I saw myself in my grandparents’ kitchen, spitting out SPAM sushi all over again.

The memory latched on with a steel grip, so I did what any other curious food writer would do: I walked down the street to the 7-11 and bought a can of SPAM.

Recipes abound on the internet for SPAM musubi; they are mostly identical, varying only in the assemblage (do you sandwich the SPAM between rice or place it on top?) and the presence of add-ins such as kewpie mayonnaise or furikake. I figured I should keep my musubi simple and stuck with straight-up SPAM, rice, and nori.

Once I figured out how to get the SPAM out of the can (harder than it looks!), the cooking process was simple: I steamed a batch of sushi rice and thickly sliced the SPAM. I seared the SPAM and sauced it up with soy sauce and sugar. Finally, I layered the fully sauced slices between compacted rice in my DIY SPAM can musubi mold and wrapped it all up in nori.

I took a deep breath before picking up my creation and taking a bite. Sweet, salty, and tasting only vaguely of cat food, this sushi was not the worst thing I’d ever eaten. In fact, the flavor of the rice, nori, and soy nearly overpowered any funky SPAM taste. I managed two swallow a good couple of bites before being overwhelmed by salt, fat, and the lingering odor of the SPAM juice.

Worth it? My stomach says probably not, but it was satisfying to give SPAMushi another try.


One thought on “Again with the SPAM

  1. Growing up in Hawaii, you learn that SPAM was something that you learned how to cook with because some weeks, that would be your only source of “meat” you could get during WWII. Today, it’s a cottage industry in Hawaii with every local joint having their own version of where to use the stuff. I’m a big fan but only if it’s pan fried until it has a crispy crust on both sides or to be used in soups where you would normally use ham.

    For the record, it’s not SPAMushi but SPAM Musubi as you found out in your internet searches. I suppose if your family wants to call it that then that’s your prerogative but no one in Hawaii would know what you were referring to if you order it that way.

    Keep trying it and you’ll find that you’ll like it.

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