How processed American meat became a Korean favorite
I first tasted Spam at a barbecue joint in Seoul, South Korea, which is probably the last place that comes to mind when you picture Spam—the misunderstood, distinctly American, pink mystery meat straight out of a blue and yellow can. It was the end of my first solo trip to Korea, and my uncle took me out for one last meal before I hit the airport in the morning: a full-on traditional Korean barbecue with a charcoal grill in the center of the table, oversized plastic bags in which to stuff our winter coats and scarves so they wouldn’t soak up the smell of meat, and all the banchan, or side dishes, I could ever want.
My uncle ordered in Korean, so I had no idea what was going to come out next. But I ate it all happily, as platters of raw pork belly and beef, perfectly marbled and marinated, bowls of rice, hot-pots of fluffy egg custard called gyeranjjim, all foods I already knew and loved, those that I think of as the most authentic of Korean foods, piled up on the table.
Then mid-meal, a waiter handed me a slim, silver bento box, and my uncle gestured for me to open it, anticipating my excited reaction. Inside was a slab of Spam, seared on a grill, and served on a bed of rice, topped with flecks of seaweed and a fried egg, yolk still gooey and oozing out. It looked pretty good all things considered, but it was still Spam. Yes, that Spam, and I had to hide my surprise.
I had never come face-to-face with the stuff before that moment. The meat’s bad reputation preceded it. I’d been told that Spam was gross, and I avoided it because I didn’t want to be more uncool than I already was. (I got enough grief for loving kimchi when I was in middle school, after all.) As Monty Python’s Graham Chapman might squeal, “I don’t like Spam!”
But in Korea, Spam is beloved, and it took traveling halfway around the world to learn to love this most-American of processed meats. It’s a supermarket and convenience store staple, and South Korea is the largest consumer of Spam outside of the United States. Understanding the history of Spam in South Korea requires looking back to the destruction of the Korean War, and learning why Koreans love Spam is to learn how Korea has evolved since the Military Demarcation Line was drawn on the 38th Parallel and fighting with the north was put on a semi-permanent pause.
After the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, the country was wrecked. South Korea was just starting to grapple with the reality of being separated from their brothers in the north, and the entire infrastructure was left in ruins. At the time, Korea was hugely food insecure, since agriculture was basically at a standstill, and it was Americans who filled in the gaps. According to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea was “almost entirely dependent on the United States for food and consumer goods” in the years after an armistice was signed with the north.
The bulk of the food imports from the United States were those that could be shipped overseas without spoiling—like, say, canned, pre-cooked meat. Kongdan Oh, a former nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who grew up in Korea in the 1950s and 1960s, remembers the American troops who brought powdered milk to her elementary school. “Tall and healthy American soldiers, staying on to deter the North Koreans, both attracted and frightened curious Korean children, who gratefully accepted presents of candy and chewing gum, foods that were totally foreign to their taste,” she wrote in a report for Brookings.
Sometimes, these gifts of food from American soldiers included leftover or unwanted cans of Spam. As Geoffrey Cain wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “When food became scarce, locals pounced on Spam and hot dogs, staples of U.S. Army rations that had found their way onto the black market after American soldiers gave away their leftover rations to locals.”
With this, traditional Korean foods started melding with the American imports, and no dish is more emblematic of this time than budae jjigae, or army-barracks stew. It’s a hodgepodge of whatever’s lying around the house—fish cakes, rice cakes, kimchi, sometimes instant ramen, and, of course, Spam.
Eventually, Spam earned a reputation as being a luxury item reserved for those who could afford to purchase the import from the grocery stores on the American army bases. But in 1987, Hormel licensed Spam to a Korean company, CheilJedang, which now manufactures all Spam sold in Korea at a domestic plant. There’s even the word “Spam,” spelled out on one side of every can in Korean characters, or hangeul, and the meat itself is manufactured with technical support from Hormel, as the company’s website explains, to ensure it is up to snuff.
Being produced domestically doesn’t mean Spam has lost its caché, though. Even the Korean-produced Spam still considered something of a gourmet treat, good enough to take home to your parents or even in-laws. Nowhere is this more evident than at chuseok, basically Korean Thanksgiving, where children go home to visit their parents, carting along gift baskets laden with food. Fresh fruit is traditional, but gift baskets of Spam aren’t unheard of. As one wine salesman told the Wall Street Journal, while he picked up a gift box of Spam for the holidays, “Beef and fruit go rotten quickly. I bought Spam as a gift for my brother-in-law because he likes meat. It’s more useful.”
These days, Spam is distinctly Korean, and is in many ways emblematic of the ways that Korean culture and society have developed since the end of the fighting on the peninsula in 1953. Food is far from scarce in modern, wealthy Korea, and Spam samgak gimbap, or rice balls, are available in every convenience store. There are TV ads showing the myriad ways Spam can be prepared, from Spam musubi, which is actually an American dish, to a Western-style vegetable stir fry or even in an Italian-inspired spaghetti, a nod to the ways in which the country has started opening up to foreign influences (albeit still somewhat reluctantly, since everything still has a Korean twist to it). And just this summer, K-pop star Jeon So Mi became the face of Spam in Korea, with her photo printed on the sides of cans; if fans and Spam enthusiasts took a picture of this limited edition can with their smartphones and sent it to the company, they could go to a special customer event.
So when I was first faced with grilled Spam at that barbecue restaurant in Seoul, I thought it would be a disappointing interlude to the pounds of unadulterated, freshly grilled pork belly, that its origins made it somehow less Korean than the “real” barbecue on the charcoal before me. Hesitant, I spooned in a dollop of gochujang, or fermented red paste, closed the box up, and shook all the ingredients together, as instructed by my uncle. The result wasn’t too salty, and the gochujang added a sweetness that had been previously lacking in the meal. The Spam was hot and slightly caramelized, too, and the soft processed meat was a perfect complement to the tender beef and chewy pork belly.
I left the restaurant stuffed to the gills and raving about Spam, and I’ve been craving that Spam bento box, as much as I crave kalbi or kimchi, ever since.