For most people the word “spam” isn’t exactly synonymous with haute cuisine, and more likely to be used in reference to e-mails about teeth whitening, pyramid schemes or from a disposed Kenyan prince who wants you to forward your bank details.
If it is thought of as a foodstuff, then spam is seen as meat for the financially insecure – naff tinned pork that only sells in a global economic crisis. For many people it conjures up images of postwar economic recession, bad camping trips and other foods from the days of rationing, like powered eggs and bully beef.
In the 1970’s the reconstituted salt-pork was so ubiquitous in Europe thanks to economic and agricultural scarcity that it was served practically everywhere. The surreal British comedy troupe Monty Python famously mocked it in a television sketch, in which a frustrated married couple enter a café only to discover that everything on the menu contains liberal quantities of the mystery meat. Spam’s image took a serious blow.
So you might be surprised to learn that spam has gone through a bit of an image regeneration in the last few years, and is a key ingredient in many high end, 5-star establishments. This stems from a remarkable incident in 2009, when Vinny Dotolo of the LA eatery Animal paired it with foie gras in a move that shocked the world of fine dining.
Love it or hate it, spam has been a pantry staple in America and around the world for almost eight decades. During the Great Depression, the gelatinous pork product was first devised by Jay Hormel, the son of the company’s founder, George Hormel way back in 1937. By 1940 the new wonder-food was consumed in over 70% of American homes. Nowadays it’s a staple of many a classy kitchen.
The LA-based chef Sharon Wang of Sugarbloom Bakery grew up with Spam in Taiwan. She started cooking with it professionally around 2012, pan-fried with potatoes, asparagus and poached eggs, and when she stopped, customers complained. Other establishments have been following suit, such as Danji in New York, and New York Sushi Ko including spam fried rice on a $135 tasting menu.
In Hawaii the canned pork has far sunnier and more positive connotations, and is often featured as an extra ingredient in specially adapted sushi, where it is combined with rice, chilli, cucumber and fig leaves to create something scrumptious. Hawaiian restaurants have capitalised on the meat’s popularity by adding it to their menus with gusto.
I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I really fancy some spam now. Looks like Monty Python was right: we might be seeing Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pâté and a fried egg on top with spam on our menus after all!