Why is SPAM so popular in Hawaii?
The History Behind Why Hawaiians Are Obsessed With Spam
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam per year, despite the fact that there are only 1.42 million people living on the islands. Regardless, Spam is both a boon and a curse for Hawaiian cuisine.
Spam is both a boon and a bane for Hawaiian cuisine.
It’s a blessing because it’s a part of our culture, and culture is beautiful. The story of how it came to be as important to us as rice and pineapples is a colorful one that involves 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’s a processed food that only adds to the traditional, sloppy diet of many overweight Hawaiians. And if you’re a chef in Hawaii who wants to highlight the island’s true edible bounty, you’ll undoubtedly have an odd relationship with Spam.
On the one hand, you have old-school Hawaiian customers who know what they want and are adamant about it—nothing but Spam musubi, brotha’. Then there are the younger visitors who are like, “This is what I’ve been eating for the past ten years. Is there anything else I should know?”
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam per year, despite the fact that there are only 1.42 million people living on the islands.
Arnold Hiura, a true Hawaiian cuisine historian, has been a great help in guiding me through my feelings about Spam. Through him, I’ve gained a better understanding of the complicated relationship that Hawaiians, including myself, have with Spam. It’s important to remember that Hawaii was a battleground during WWII. We had government-mandated blackouts, food rationing, and food restrictions, all of which added to the stress because we were away from the mainland. Spam was one of those scarce food rations that my forefathers relied on during the war.
This would usher in a new era of Hawaiian cuisine.
Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam per year, despite the fact that there are only 1.42 million people living on the islands. We even have a goddamn Spam Jam food event once a year where you can try shitty little things like Spam-flavored macadamia nuts; 25,000 people attend just to eat Spam.
My grandmother pounding tannic-ass bamboo shoots she cut herself from the riverbed to eat with Spam was one of my earliest memories. I wasn’t a cook at the time, but hearing those Spam stories piqued my interest.
We cut it up, sauteed it, simmered it with shoyu and sugar, and transformed it into something beautiful.
During the war, there was a constant fear that food shipments would cease to arrive in Hawaii, so many people tended to stockpile items such as Spam and toilet paper. My grandmother could stock up on up to five cases of Spam at a time. This paved the way for modern-day Hawaiian cultural practices such as hoarding. Ask your nearest Hawaiian friend to see what I mean.
Yes, it is a canned meat product that can last indefinitely and has a bad reputation elsewhere in the world, but to the people of Hawaii, Spam meant vital nourishment during a time of uncertainty and chaos. As a result, they prepared it with great care. We cut it up, sauteed it, simmered it with shoyu and sugar, and transformed it into something beautiful. Nobody is going to argue that eating Spam straight from the can is delicious—fucking it’s disgusting.
There are chefs who make their own Spam from scratch, which is fantastic. This is the only way Hawaiian cuisine can evolve, but I refuse to do so in any of my restaurants. (I thought I was the shit when I made Spam noodles with transglutaminase powder.) However, I eventually realized that certain factors contribute to Spam being Spam. This means that damned can and flavor.
I recall Hormel attempting to introduce this food service-friendly, ten-pound package of Spam, but it failed. This is due to the iconic nature of Spam’s packaging, and people believe that by doing things like cryovacing it, you lose the subtle nuances in porky flavor. I have nothing but admiration for all of you DIY-Spammers, but it is simply not what we do at my two restaurants and catering business.
Some local chefs who advertise using only seasonal and local ingredients swear they’d never cook with Spam again because it’s a processed food, but I’m the first to call them out “You grew up in Hawaii as a local! I know for a fact you ate Spam—a it’s part of our culture! We’re all raised with it!”
When it comes to Hawaii’s food traditions, there are ways to combine old and new. It does not need to be black and white. I prepared a Spam stir-fry with local, organic vegetables. You can still source locally and so on, as our customers expect, and Spam is not in every single dish that we prepare.
As I previously stated, simply be true to yourself and your food. For better or worse, this means Hawaiians love Spam.
How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii’s Cuisine
Here’s an excerpt from the Spam website’s FAQ:
Why are SPAM® products so well-liked in Hawaii?
“You’re probably thinking that SPAM® products must grow on trees there. That would be cool, but you must have taken a coconut to the head to believe it. The true origins of the island’s fondness for SPAM® products can be traced back to World War II, when the luncheon meat was served to servicemen. SPAM® products had entered local culture by the end of the war, with Fried SPAM® Classic and rice becoming a popular meal. The distinct flavor quickly found its way into other Hawaiian dishes, such as SPAM® Fried Wontons and SPAM® Musubi, and SPAM® products became a breakfast, lunch, and dinner staple. Today, SPAM® dishes can be found everywhere from convenience stores to restaurants, reflecting a global demand that is unrivaled.”
Now, let’s get back to Kiki.
So, what are your thoughts on this political mailer?
I’d say, “Nice work,” if I saw a postcard like that. Spam. Cool. That’s fantastic. We recently had a Spam shortage, so this is welcome news. Hawaii has always had a diverse food culture that incorporates many influences. It has accepted no other foreign resource more enthusiastically than Spam. I remember eating Spam as a kid, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it wasn’t originally from Hawaii. I just assumed it was something unique to Hawaii. It felt strange to me because it came from a strange place, a mysterious place on the mainland that I’d never visited. There’s a Spam museum, which I’ve never visited. To me, all of these people are legends. You know what I mean?
My generation does not associate Spam with any other country. We think of it as something unique to Hawaii. My father has the same opinion about Vienna sausages. Spam appeared to him later in life. Growing up, he only ate canned foods like Vienna sausages. When there is a national disaster, a natural disaster, or any kind of disaster in Hawaii, we have a mild hoarding syndrome. It directs customers to the store to purchase toilet paper and Spam. Those are our two life necessities.
Someone’s memoir should be called Toilet Paper and Spam.
I’d love to write one, so hopefully it will be mine. Part of me just doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. I don’t understand why people think it’s disgusting, because it’s necessary. Why bring this up in the first place? Do you bring up toilet paper in conversation? These are necessities for daily life. So, yeah, I suppose it’s part of the dialogue culture in that this is the dialogue I’m having away from Hawaii. When you’re not participating in your culture, when you’re not in the place where it exists, I believe you should celebrate it more loudly. I think it’s strange for my family to say, “Oh, Kiki has to become the Spam spokesperson,” because I’ve done work specifically for Spam.
Oh, please tell me more about that right away!
Munchies got a recipe from me. Vice did this with Spam during the pandemic. In a screenshot, I wrote a recipe for a Spam Musubi birthday cake that went viral in Hawaii—in a good way. People were saying, “Oh my goodness. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this before.” Or, “Oh, my goodness. This is something I do.” It’s a ridiculous thing to say. The issue with the screenshot is that you can’t tell what the cake is made of. You only see a lot of rice and some Spam on it.
The Spam Musubirthday cake was made of andasu, a Japanese condiment. It comes from Okinawa, where miso is typically combined with sugar, rice wine, and pork fat. I used chicken fat to make a version that was more reminiscent of my Chinese heritage. I made a sauce with chicken fat, rice wine, sugar, and white miso. I combined it with hot rice to make a cake, which I then layered with fried egg and teriyaki-marinated Spam. It was fantastic. I needed to make a lot of them for recipe testing. Almost all of my neighbors got big chunks of this rice and chicken fat Spam cake at some point. It went viral in Hawaii as a screenshot of me in a Spam colored dress staring at this clearly ridiculous rice and Spam birthday cake. Yes, I adore Spam. Have you seen the Spam can that I crocheted?
That is a magnificent object. Any other ideas on how a commercial product or ingredient becomes so inextricably linked to Hawaiian cuisine?
My father grew up on the island of Oahu. I also spent some time growing up on Oahu. But his family had lived on Kauai for many generations, and there had been a lot of intermarriage. So I’m what you’d call a poi dog, or a mutt. Many of our forefathers came from all over the world to work on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations. This is very common in most Hawaiian families; there will be a lot of ethnic diversity within one family, and there will be a lot of history involving the plantations. The plantations gave rise to Hawaii’s native cuisine. I say “Hawaii’s local food” on purpose, because it includes some Hawaiian food. However, Hawaiian cuisine is a distinct category in and of itself.
Hawaiian is an ethnicity, and there is, of course, a cuisine associated with that ethnicity. Everyone else who came later—the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Chinese, the Koreans, and all the other ethnic groups—took on different aspects of each other’s cuisines. They have to cook together, live together, put up with each other, and many of them intermarried. This evolved into its own cuisine. It’s not fusion because no one came along and mashed up various elements. The food I grew up on, and the food that serves as the foundation of what I serve, exists as a distinct cuisine. Korean Galbi sits comfortably next to macaroni salad on one plate, and it’s served with rice, of course, and it’s clearly a plate lunch.
This has been around for decades, if not longer, and there we have Hawaii’s local food. It’s an intriguing dichotomy to say, “Hawaii’s local food.” Because “local” in Hawaii does not mean “of the place.” It means that it was brought from somewhere else and accepted in Hawaii. As a result, we can refer to it as local.
It’s looked different in the last few years, I’d say, over the course of my life. When I was a baby, the places to go were those that focused on combining Pacific influences with French techniques, and there wasn’t as much emphasis on local ingredients. Maybe on some things, like certain fish and vegetables. But there wasn’t a very comprehensive view of Hawaii’s resources because we imported and continue to import the vast majority of our food from the mainland, which is absurd. It’s exorbitantly priced. Even now, the majority of Hawaii’s milk is imported from the mainland. The majority of Hawaii’s food is imported from the mainland. There you have it. It’s difficult to condense everything into a few sentences.
In Hawaii, we have a strong desire to make other people’s food our own. You must keep this in mind, and the way I approach Hawaii’s local food, Hawaii’s food, and my own food is that it is not a static thing. It’s constantly innovative and interesting, and yes, we have the classics, like Kalua pig and Spam musubi. For a long time, these have been considered classics. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make minor changes or add your own flair. Because what I find so exciting about Hawaii’s food is that people who try it for the first time say, “This is Hawaiian food. These are the few categories of local food in Hawaii.” But even if you just go to my family’s potluck dinners, you’ll notice that they’re always bringing new things.
What many visitors to Hawaii don’t realize is that we love transporting food from one location to another. Carrying food long distances, or even short distances, and sharing food is an important part of Hawaii’s food culture. Much of our food culture in Hawaii is influenced by Japanese food culture, but also by Japanese culture in general. Omiyage is something you bring back from your travels to share with others. You must always arrive with a gift, and you must always consider others when traveling and bring something back with you. It’s usually food. With this Omiyage tradition, you are constantly introducing new foods to people.
When you introduce new foods and flavors to people, they will want to incorporate them into what they already know, enjoy, and eat. Hawaii’s food is constantly changing and evolving, and it feels like a big, warm hug that keeps bringing in new flavors and influences. I’ll say it again: Hawaii’s food is not static.
Topic: Why is SPAM so popular in Hawaii?
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By: Travel Pixy
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