Why Hello There, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. Last Thursday, we took a probably-too-involved look at the culinary history of Hawaii. It was, of course, a riot for everyone, and simply dripping with white guilt. Today, we’re going to swiftly wrap up that conversation, and share with you guys a guilty pleasure for my brother and I: Spam Musubi. So let’s crack a can and get a tan, here we go!
LAST TIME, ON KITCHEN CATASTROPHES
1640 years of Hawaiian culinary development was summarized in just over 1700 words, so, you know, definitely covered it all with proper attention and care. I certainly didn’t brush over hours of oral storytelling and mythology with a single story about a God-corpse root that stops arguments.
I covered the first 4 waves of Hawaiian culinary influences, which, quick reminder, were: 1. Polynesians settled the islands, bringing vegetables, fruits, and livestock. 2. The Europeans show up, definitely no one gets murdered, and introduce more livestock and fruit, and start huge plantations to produce sugar and pineapple. 3. Asians, as well as some Hispanicpeoples get hired by the plantation owners to work the land, bringing their methods, ingredients, and so forth. And then 4. World War 2 causes a huge influx of ‘standard’ American tastes into the area, with military personnel outnumbering civilians 2-to-1 during the war. This, along with rationing efforts and somewhat racist rules, lead to the introduction of SPAM to the island. There’s one more wave to cover, but first, let’s talk about Spam, since, you know, we JUST had a big history lesson.
Meat in A Can is A Hell of A Plan
Let’s first touch upon something many people forget when talking about canned goods like Spam: in the modern world, especially in America and the West, it is almost impossible to conceive of just how important canning food was, in terms of lives saved and food preserved. In 1795, the French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a system for storing fresh food long term that could be produced on a large scale. That’s the equivalent of offering $3,000,000 in 2013 dollars. That’s less money then you’d get from James Randi for proving magic exists!
I'm not directly calling him a cheapskate, but I think the implication is clear.
Also fun fact, we started canning food 50 years before we made a reliable can opener. Yeah. That’s how important it was: we needed canned food so badly, we didn’t care if we had a way to OPEN the cans. We just used hammers, chisels, whatever we had.
So, 1810, we invent canned foods, expressly for the French military. In 1937, America invents Spam. As that date implies, the invention is actually unrelated to the military. We just wanted to make meat in a can that didn’t need to be refrigerated; because sometimes, American food history reads like the journal of a mad scientist.
Heck, we don’t even know why it’s named “Spam”. Some dude won a contest and got to name it. Now, he was the brother of a company executive, so, you know, totally not rigged there, dudes. But apparently they had a meeting, and walked out with “Spam”, and NO ONE EVER EXPLAINED THE LOGIC. Hormel itself says the meaning is only known to “a small circle of former Hormel Executives.” Theories abound, all pretty much uniform in purpose: it’s an abbreviation for “SPiced hAM” or “SPAre Meat” or “Shoulders of Pork And haM”. Or maybe it’s an acronym for “Specially Processed American Meat” or “Specially Processed Army Meat”. As noted earlier, that last one is probably wrong, unlike Hormel still uses haruspices, saw World War 2 coming in the entrails of a lamb, and proceeded to do NOTHING.
I'm honestly a little worried that my auto-correct knew the proper plural for haruspex, a word that hasn't been relevant to non 40k fans in like, 160 years.
Then World War 2 happened, as I have had to say 3 times in the last week. And it turns out shipping 10 oz tins that don’t require refrigeration is MUCH easier than hauling sides of beef over the ocean. The US armed forces bought over 75,000 TONS of Spam in World War 2, and sent it EVERYWHERE. Seriously, both Margaret Thatcher and Nikita Khrushchev thanked the US for sending them Spam during the war. We FILLED the Pacific Islands with it. After the war, it showed up in China, Japan, even ISRAEL. (That market was the hardest because, you know, no pork. They had to make a kosher version, and a beef based one.) Monty Python did a skit about a diner that only sold Spam, including a Spam Song. This skit would go on to be the (presumed) origin for the use of Spam on the internet. (The first “spam” emails/messages were people quoting the Spam skit to horse around with other nerds in MUD’s, the text based predecessor to MMO’s/chat rooms.) And that might be the nerdiest origin I’ve shared: early internet RPer’s referencing Monty Python sketches.
But yes, Spam was everywhere, but it was HUGE in the Pacific Islands, especially Hawaii. With deep sea fishing banned to keep an eye on Japanese immigrants, and a huge military to civilian ratio, Hawaiians ate a lot of Spam that war. They would go on to hold annual Spam festivals, and even have multiple flavors unique to the Hawaiian market: Honey Spam, Spam with Bacon, and more.
BUT, Spam is not the end-all be-all of Hawaiian cuisine. So, before we get to the recipe, let’s wrap up the 5 waves of Hawaiian cuisine with the fifth and final wave.
Wasn’t The Fifth Wave a Bad Teen Movie?
Young Adult, Title Jon. It was a bad “young Adult” movie. BUT, we’re not here to talk about long-forgotten Chloe Grace Moretz vehicles, with or without Liev Schreiber, a man whose name is fascinating to Auto-correct: It assumed meant “Live”, but then IMMEDIATELY knew his last name.
His middle name is Sabretooth.
But no, we’re here to talk about HRC, an acronym now slightly uncomfortable, given that it’s a popular shorthand for Hillary Clinton. This HRC, however, refers to Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that started in the early 90’s in Hawaii. Essentially, the movement seeks to make Hawaiian food more…Hawaiian. To stop copying recipes needing ingredients shipped from the mainland, and focus on the unique cultural interactions of the islands, and local ingredients. It was started by a dozen high-level chefs, who formed a non-profit organization, as well as a cookbook that they sold to support the group.
The recipes they create are fascinating in their alien familiarity: Bacon Fried Rice with Avocado, Oxtail Soup with Ramen Noodles and Daikon Radish, Quesadillas with Ham and Pineapple. Yes, they made a “Hawaiian” Quesadilla. That’s the new movement of Hawaii: Be happy being Hapa. (Hapa is the Hawaiian word for ‘partial’, and is used to describe people of mixed races.)
And what better example of the gross commercialization of widespread acceptance than Spam Musubi?
A Japanese style of food, made using a meat made popular by fucking over the Japanese population of Hawaii, it’s a dish beloved by hundreds of thousands. And two of those number are myself and my brother.
Bringing it Home
I can’t tell you when exactly I first had spam musubi, but it had to have been fairly recent. I recall with clarity the first time my family had Spam, as I was somewhere around 12. The pink meat plopped out of the can, and I was convinced that my dad was trying to trick us into eating Cat Food.
I'm still not certain I was wrong.
Years of living next to a grocery store, and eating pre-made sushi, however, wore me down. Eventually, at some restaurant or grocery store, I grabbed the spam musubi, just to see how it was. And I almost died. For some reason, I am mentally incapable of properly eating spam musubi: I ALWAYS have a bite that’s a hair too big, that I don’t chew enough, that fills my throat so that I briefly can’t breathe as the hot brick of food makes its way down. Rather than, you know, LEARN from this error, I just now consider it the sign of well-made musubi.
With our recent trips to Poulsbo, my brother and I were able to fit in some musubi time: we’d walk into the store, grab a quick lunch, and some musubi for the road. He had the same ‘choking burn’ thing with the musubi that I did, so either the problem is genetic, or maybe it’s normal. Probably the former.
The recipe itself is rather simple, so of course we screw it up. You make a marinade of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar. I added a little Worcestershire for some more depth to the saltiness. Then you slice up the spam, and plunk it in the sauce to soak up the flavors.
Unlike, you know, natural meat, the spam only marinates for 10 minutes or so. In the meanwhile, make rice. Plain white rice, made as if you were going to make sushi. Don’t know how to do that? Neither do I! I just reheated rice we had made two days before, for our Loco Moco! This was not a good plan!
While that’s going wrong, cut toasted nori sheets into strips. I tried to be gentle, scoring lines with a knife, and then folding along the cut before tearing down the new seam. Don’t do this. A pair of kitchen shears does the work much neater, and much faster.
It's the never-ending NOOOOOORRRIIII
Once the spam has soaked, heat 2 tbsps of oil in a skillet to medium. Maybe medium low. You’re going to fry the musubi for like, 2 minutes a side. You don’t want the heat very high, because even at medium the sugars in the sauce are gonna caramelize real quick. Then you form the rice into meat-slice-shaped balls, place the meat on top, and wrap the whole ensemble with nori. Except, since you used bad rice, it goes full Charizard: “YOU DON’T HAVE THE BADGES TO TRAIN ME!”
These are the SUCCESSES from our battle.
Eventually, I found the system that produced the least heart-breaking results is to fry the spam, lay it on top of the nori, pat rice on top of it, give it a brush of the marinade again, and then fold the nori around. Then, you turn it over, the rice ball snaps in half, and you weep bitterly.
In the end, however, it has to be said: the spam came through great. The marinade is flavorful. If you can get your rice to obey you (I think you need the Cinnabar Island badge), I think this could be one heck of a quick meal. With obedient rice, this whole thing could come together in 30 minutes, making like, 10 musubi. Great for a party or snack, or for choking down in pain on the road.
This is the prettiest picture I have. Assuming you, like me, like glistening hot meat.
That came out wrong.
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THURSDAY: JON RETURNS TO THE CULINARY COMPENDIUM TO DEFINE BAKING TERMS.
1 container Spam
¼ cup oyster sauce
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup sugar
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2-3 cups cooked white rice.
2 sheets of toasted nori.
1. Mix the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and Worcestershire until sugar is fully dissolved. Remove spam from can, and slice into 10 slices. Toss slices in marinade, and let sit 10 minutes.
2. Cut nori sheets into roughly 1” wide strips. Assemble rice into 10 balls, formed roughly the width and length of the spam slices.
3. Heat 2 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil in a skillet over medium heat. Place slices of spam in pan, frying for 2 minutes a side. If meat is cooking too hard or dark, reduce heat to medium low.
4. Place cooked slices on top of individual balls of rice. You can also quickly brush the top of the rice ball with the marinade before you do so, if you like. I also sprinkle a bit of togarashi spice, but I’m a bougie sumbitch.
5. Wrap the compete musubi with the nori strip, sealing on the bottom. Serve warm.