SPAM is no longer banished to the back of nan's cupboard, says Laura Martin. There's a London restaurant on a mission to change our perceptions
SPAM has been the butt of jokes since Monty Python lambasted it in one of their sketches way back in the 1970s. While SPAM (which stands for Spiced Ham, FYI) was relegated to nan's sarnies here in the UK, over in Hawaii, it's a real *thing*. It's been part of the national cuisine since it was introduced by American GIs during the second world war. Today Hawaiians consume more SPAM than anyone else in the world.
The tinned meat is a mix of chopped pork shoulder, ham, sugar, salt and spices and a sprinkling of sodium nitrate and trisodium phosphate. It's sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian steak” and is celebrated during the annual SPAM Jam festival with McDonald's offering a special SPAM, eggs and rice breakfast dish.
Now London's Hawaiian eaters are putting it on the menu. Could SPAM be cool again? More importantly, does it actually taste good? I headed down to Pond, the restaurant reinventing it, to see if could be converted.
The SPAM fries are surprisingly delicious – sort of like crispy, thin chunks of grilled bacon but with a slightly soft middle. There's also a fruity yuzu dipping sauce, as traditional Hawaiian food actually has a lot of Asian elements to its ingredients and cooking. I can't believe I'm saying it, but it's a winning combo. I happily scoffed as many as I could manage.
Next up was SPAM musubi, a sort of Hawaiin sushi. It was a revelation! The SPAM has been marinated and fried, giving it a crispy texture and teriyaki flavour that works well as a sushi bite. It was well seasoned and a nice change from regular fish sushi. I almost forgot it had been squeezed out of a tin!
After my SPAM feast, I spoke to Byron Knight, the owner of Pond:
Why did you put SPAM on your menu?
Well, it's a staple of Hawaiian food – proper Hawaiian food, not pineapples and stuff served in the resorts there. Everyone eats it – the average Hawaiian gets through 16 cans a year each of the stuff. They seriously love it!
How did you choose what SPAM dishes to have in the restaurant?
The two dishes we have – SPAM fries and SPAM musubis – are traditional street food from Hawaii. I think they'll always be on our menu. We have them as a bar snack as they're good with a beer, they're like chicharones [pork scratchings] from Mexico. The musubi is typical surfer food – it's sushi rice, SPAM sauteed with teriyaki sauce all wrapped in nori – it's a snack that you get everywhere on the island, from gas stations to surf shacks.
Why do you think SPAM's got such a bad reputation over here?
Well, when's the last time you had corned beef hash or something similar from a workman's cafe? They slice it up and serve it cold. It's disgusting! So I think any kind of comfort food that you can reinvent is good. We dust ours with a bit of dried shrimp and rice that we pulverise a bit so it's got a bit of a rice / shrimp coating going on, which gives it a little extra crunch and a little added bit of umami and flavour.
What have customers' reactions been like?
We've won quite a few people over who weren't convinced with the idea. They are really surprised with the taste when they try it, it's different to perhaps what they were expecting. But for me, it's like the craze with bacon, it's never died. It just tastes good.
What's a simple dish people at home can try to give SPAM another go?
The SPAM fries works really well. Just slice it up thinly and deep fry it.
Have you noticed any other chefs starting to use SPAM again?
Yes, I saw a Korean chef on TV who made a sort of stew with SPAM, hotdogs and kimchi, all in a stew with ramen noodles.
What other plans do you have for SPAM in your restaurant?
I'm trying to get Terri, my pastry chef, in on it too. She's made an upside down pineapple cake for the dessert menu and I kind of want her to stick some SPAM in it, as that salt and sweet taste goes really well, but she won't do it ... yet.