The History Behind Why Hawaiians Are Obsessed With Spam
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam a year and there are only 1.42 million of us currently living in the islands—let that sink in a little bit. Nonetheless, Spam is both a blessing and a curse to Hawaiian cuisine.
Spam is both a blessing and a curse to Hawaii cuisine.
It's a blessing because it is an integral part of our culture, and culture is a beautiful thing. The story of how it became as vital as rice and pineapples to us is a colorful one involving World War II, rationing, and resilient Hawaiians who knew how to make that damn can of ground pork last forever.
It's also a curse because, at the end of the day, it is a processed food and it only adds to the traditional, shitty diet of a lot of overweight Hawaii residents. And if you're a chef in Hawaii who strives to showcase the island's true edible bounty, you will undoubtedly have a strange relationship with Spam.
On one hand, you have old-school Hawaiian customers who know what they like and are stubborn in their ways—meaning nothing but Spam musubi, brotha'. Then there's the younger generation of visitors who are like, "Fuck, this is the same thing that I've eaten for ten years now. Is there anything else?"
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam a year and there are only 1.42 million of us currently living in the islands—let that sink in a little bit.
To guide me with my feelings about Spam, I've been lucky to have the help of Arnold Hiura, a bona fide Hawaiian cuisine historian. Through him, I've really understood the complicated relationship that Hawaii's people—including myself—have with Spam. You have to remember that Hawaii was a war zone during World War II. We had government-mandated blackouts, we had food rationing, and food restrictions, which we felt the pressure of even more because we were away from the mainland. Spam was one of those scarce food rations, and it was something that my ancestors lived on during the war.
This would mark the beginning of a new Hawaiian food era.
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam a year and there are only 1.42 million of us currently living in the islands—let that sink in a little bit. We even have a goddamn Spam Jam food event once a year, where you can taste shitty little things like Spam-flavored macadamia nuts; 25,000 people attend the event just to eat Spam.
Some of my earliest memories are hearing about my grandmother pounding tannic-ass bamboo shoots that she cut herself from the riverbed to eat with Spam. I wasn't a cook then, but hearing those stories about Spam sparked something in me.
We cut it up, we sauteed it, we simmered with shoyu and sugar; we turned into something else that was beautiful.
During the war, there was this constant fear of shipments of food suddenly not making it to Hawaii anymore, so a lot of people during that time had a tendency to hoard things like Spam and toilet paper. My grandmother hoarded up to five cases of Spam at a time. This paved the way for the modern-day Hawaiian cultural practice of hoarding things. Ask your nearest Hawaiian friend to see what I am talking about.
Yes, it is a canned meat product that can last forever and it has a bad reputation everywhere else in the world, but to the people of Hawaii, Spam meant precious nourishment in a time of uncertainty and chaos. Thus, they prepared it with an immense amount of love. We cut it up, we sauteed it, we simmered with shoyu and sugar; we turned into something else that was beautiful. No one is going to claim that Spam scooped right out of the can and eaten as-is is delicious—it's fucking disgusting.
There are chefs who are making their own Spam from scratch, which is definitely awesome. This is the only way that Hawaiian cuisine will evolve, but I don't choose to do that in any of my restaurants. (I once made Spam noodles using transglutaminase powder and I thought I was the shit.) However, I eventually realized that there are certain things that make Spam Spam. This means that damn can and that damn flavor.
I remember when Hormel tried to introduce this food service-friendly, ten-pound-package of Spam, but it didn't work out. This is because Spam's packaging is iconic, and people believe that by doing things like cryovacing it, you will lose the subtle nuances in porky flavor. I have nothing but respect for all of you DIY-Spammers, but it is just not what we do at my two restaurants and catering company.
Some local chefs who market themselves as using only seasonal and local products swear they would never cook with Spam again because it is a processed food, but I'm the first to call them out, "You grew up as a local kid in Hawaii! I know for a fucking fact that you ate Spam—it's part of our culture! We all grow up with it!"
There are ways to blend old with new when it comes to Hawaii's food traditions. It doesn't have to be black or white. I've made a Spam stir-fry with local, organic veggies. You can still source locally and whatnot, like our customers know us to do, and Spam is definitely not on every single dish that we make.
Like I said: Just be true to yourself and your food. For Hawaiians, for better or for worse, this means loving Spam.
As told to Javier Cabral