Filet mignon? What? No Spam?In a scene in "The Way Home" ("Jip-eu-ro"), a Korean movie soon to be released about a young boy from Seoul forced to live with his grandmother in the countryside, the boy pushes away the kimchi that his grandmother puts on his bowl of rice. Instead of the spicy pickled vegetables, the 7-year-old boy opens up a can of Spam, an American luncheon meat, and digs into it with his spoon.
Many conscientious mothers probably would cluck their disapproval at the scene, jeering at the way the boy favored unhealthy processed food instead of something more nutritious. "What kind of mother would let her son eat Spam?" they may wonder.
Many mothers would, apparently. According to Cheil Jedang, which has been manufacturing Spam in Korea since 1987 under a licensing agreement with Hormel Foods of the United States, housewives in the 25-49 age group make up the bulk of those purchasing the luncheon meat.
The canned meat - it's mostly pork shoulder and ham combined with spices - first rolled off the production line in 1937 in Austin, Minnesota. Originally called Hormel's Spiced Ham, the name Spam was a natural contraction. Spam came to the limelight during World War II when 15 million cans were provided to Allied troops each week. Hormel's official Web site quotes a line from Nikita Khrushchev's memoir: "Without Spam we wouldn't have been able to feed our army."
During the Korean War of 1950-1953, Spam fed not only the American soldiers but much of the country's starving population as well. Leftover Spam from American army camps, along with scraps of sausages, bacon, and other meat, were all thrown together into a pot to which water was added to make a thick stew called budae jjige, literally "camp stew."
At first known variously as Johnson Stew or Carter Stew, after common American last names, the meat was a rare treat for people devastated by the war, whose diets usually consisted of porridge made from mixed grains.
Fast forward several decades. What is it about that canned pinkish meat that has kept its hold on the Korean palate? Cheil Jedang reports selling some 6,500 to 7,000 tons of Spam a year, making Korea the largest market for Spam outside the United States. And that figure does not include all the other cans of Spam that are smuggled off the U.S. military bases and sold on the black market.
The taste for Spam is acquired at an early age here. Many mothers use Spam in making gimbap (rice rolled in seaweed, with meat and veggies inside) for their children's field trips. Some find Spam a convenient way to avoid cooking. "Spam on its own is a little salty, but with rice it is just right," said Lee Hye-young, a 35-year-old mother of two children who serves grilled Spam and kimchi with rice for dinner occasionally when her husband is away and she does not feel like cooking. Her daughters think it is a treat, because she usually does not allow them to eat ham or sausages. "I know processed meat cannot be healthy," she said.
Spam also makes its way into kimchi jjige, a very Korean stew that is made essentially by sauteing old kimchi and pork, adding some water and letting the pot simmer. This particular dish is a Korean equivalent of a ragout that is made when there is nothing but kimchi, the staple of all Korean meals that no self-respecting homemaker would ever run out of, in the fridge for dinner. This is where that can of Spam in the pantry comes in handy. Chances are that by the time there is nothing but kimchi left in the fridge, there is no pork in the freezer either. Korean housewives know that the old reliable Spam substitutes nicely for pork. After all, the luncheon meat is made of 100 percent pure pork and ham. In fact, cubed, sliced, julienned, raw and grilled, Spam finds its way into many Korean dishes, including fried rice, gimbap, salad and even japchae (chow mein).
"Localization is a key to the popularity of Spam in Korea," says Elliot Chung, a public relations officer at Cheil Jedang. To meet the demand of Korean consumers who found the original U.S. Spam too salty, Cheil Jedang uses only a recipe with 25 percent less salt than the normal recipe.
Gift boxes of Spam, available during the Lunar New Year and Chuseok holidays, are also popular among practical Koreans who like to give practical gifts. Mr. Chung noted that not only Spam is available in gift boxes during the traditional gift-giving seasons. Canned tuna, toothpaste, soap and cooking oil, all are sold in attractively packaged sets during those periods.
While some in the generation of Koreans who lived through the Korean War probably balk at the idea of eating wartime fare today, the younger generation of Koreans apparently likes the stuff. The budae jjigae recipe was the most sought for at an Internet food site last year.
The humble dish has become something of a star, the first-ever fusion food in Korea with roots half a century old. At Geuppeu, a restaurant in the college streets of Sinchon, budae jjigae has been given a new twist with the use of sea kelp stock in place of the usual water for the soup. Ramen noodles, noodles made with potato starch, thin slices of tteok (rice cakes), bean sprouts and crown daisy top the base layer of luncheon meat, sausage and canned beans.
A slice of American cheese that melts into cream tones down the otherwise fiery dish, which is seasoned heavily with chili powder and garlic and cooked on the table. Today's GIs would not recognize their fathers' C-ration staple.
Spam can be dressed up - one's imagination is the only limit - but there are purists out there who will have nothing to do with the fancy dishes. "It is best eaten uncooked, straight from the can with a spoon. Nothing beats it," said Park Ki-seop, 65, whose first encounter with Spam came during the Korean War.
How to keep up with the Parks in postwar Korea: PX instant coffee and Carnation evaporated milk
By Inēs Cho
There was a time, particularly in the fast-growing 1960s and 1970s, when nothing sold like a product labeled "Made in the U.S.A.," or mije mulgeon in Korea. Nothing said that you had made it and were a big success more than a house filled with mije mulgeon goods.
A typical bourgeoise in those days stocked her pantry with not only a pile of canned Spam, but also with other imported food items. American instant coffee was perhaps the most coveted of all. Debates over the relative merits and flavor of Maxim and Taster's Choice brewed hot among housewives from affluent homes. A jar of American coffee was good enough to bribe, say, a school teacher. The best way, of course, to impress your houseguests was to serve a steaming cup of American instant coffee mixed with Carnation evaporated milk. Housemaids fell in love with the taste of the American beverage and drank it by the basin in the corner of the kitchen when their employers forgot to stash away the coffee and the Carnation cans.
Dole's pineapple juice was a favorite among all ages. Lollipops, Snickers and Milky Ways made their way into spoiled children's snack times. The ultimate potato chips, Pringles, belatedly joined the American pantry and the chips were also an instant hit. If a child's picnic pack consisted entirely of products from an American supermarket, the kid might find himself the most popular in the school.
Korean food companies hastily produced equivalent products for much lower prices, but snobby Koreans ignored them as inferior. And parents kept themselves busy as ever hiding the mije foods out of sight so children wouldn't wolf them all down.
The American influence has also been strong in beauty products. Middle-aged women maintained extremely amicable terms with their black market merchant to make sure they got their supply of Elizabeth Arden's facial cream and Pond's cold cream. They were affectionately dubbed aden keurim and ponjeu keurim, respectively.
Sales of the two creams were so lucrative that counterfeit creams made of wax and glue became rampant in the Korean market, and women talked about how to distinguish the real from the fake. Rich and vain women loved Revlon; they applied red Revlon lipstick to their lips and washed their hair with Revlon's balsam shampoo and rinse.
Luckily, things have changed a lot since then. Haven't they?
by Kim Hoo-ran