Spam I Am
Spam is sort of gross. The way it jiggles and bounces out of the can. Its flesh is striped with gluey gray veins, which is gelatin that forms when the iconic can is cooked on the assembly line. But sliced and pan-fried, then nestled between two layers of hot rice and wrapped in nori, it's reborn into something magical, albeit sort of trashy. It goes by the name of Spam musubi, and my grandma would prefer I not tell you about it.
"It's not a dish that people outside the islands would appreciate, I think," she tells me over the phone from Honolulu.
There's not much to Spam musubi, lore- or recipe-wise. According to this Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, it arose in the early 80s when a woman named Mitsuko Kaneshiro began selling Americanized omusubi (rice balls) out of a pharmacy in Honolulu. Eventually, she opened her own shop, peddling 500 hand-formed Spam musubi a day. Nowadays, most people have their own Spam-shaped musubi press (seriously) to create uniform layers of steamed rice to sandwich the Spam before a thin sheet of nori, which starts out crisp then turns sort of filmy from the heat of the rice, is folded around it.
Funny enough, Grandma didn't make Spam musubi when I visited during the holidays. My Arizona-born mom did—it's a dish she discovered when she met my island-boy father in California. She first tried it at King's Hawaiian Bakery in Torrance and then made it on and off at home for the family. You could douse the Spam in teriyaki or add an extra layer of scrambled eggs—obviously Spam musubi lends itself to experimentation—but my mom likes to keep hers simple.
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"I think Spam already has flavor, not a great flavor," my mom says with a laugh. "But it needed something more, so that's why I added furikake [a Japanese spice blend with dried fish]."
That extra fishy funk (and freaky idea of meat from a can) made me a little scared of Spam musubi growing up. But for some reason, I brought one of those Spam presses back to my sweltering New York City apartment the summer after I graduated college. I had no idea what I was doing back then—except that I would never give up on my big dreams of being a glamorous food writer—and found myself running between my unpaid magazine internship and working as a very terrible prep cook at a friend's restaurant. After long days, I dragged myself up the four flights of stairs to my un-air-conditioned apartment and spent the whole evening cooking, making batches of ozoni, the Japanese mochi soup my aunt conjured each New Year's. I flipped giant Korean seafood pancakes that left pretty giant oil burns on my foot. And somehow I found my way back to Spam musubi.
I promised to make it for my roommates, or maybe my then-boyfriend (now-husband), one day, and I came through—no gags induced from the gelatin. I cut the musubi bricks into thirds, dredging each side in furikake and placed them on a platter, like my mom. That was my first Spam musubi, and I finally saw the light—its canned corned beef hash kind of deliciousness and distinctly weird Hawaiian Japanese flavors that reminded me of home and the people they gathered: friends, family and now even the fancy food editors here at Tasting Table.
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