How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii's Cuisine
Last week, before the Georgia runoff elections, my colleague shared a mailer that her parents—who live in suburban Atlanta—received from a group opposing the election of Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the United States Senate. The imagery was baffling, to say to least. It depicted a multi-generational white family seated at a festively-laid table near a stocking-bedecked mantelpiece. They smiled widely at their aproned matriarch, and she beamed toothily as she presented on a platter what appeared to be an industrial-sized tin of Spam.
"Christmas could look very different next year," should Warnock and Ossoff (depicted in inset photos at the far left edge of the table) be elected, cautioned the language on the card. But what the heck does that have to do with canned meat? Was the iconic American product, first introduced in 1937 by the Hormel company, going to be sent to every household in a porky incarnation of the historical "chicken in every pot" promise? Was there a looming turkey shortage thwartable only by their GOP opponents, David Perdue (no relation to the poultry dynasty) and WNBA team owner Kelly Loeffler? Was the local Georgia GOP just being super-classist about tinned pork?
Unclear! But chef and Spam evangelist Kiki Aranita—who split her time growing up between Hawaii and Hong Kong—was about to call in to the Communal Table podcast to talk about closing her Hawaii-centric Philadelphia restaurant Poi Dog and her new venture selling sauces, so it seemed wise to ask her what the heck she thought it meant, and why Spam is such a staple in Hawaii.
But first, from the Spam website's FAQ:
Why are SPAM®'s products so popular in Hawaii?
"We know what you're thinking; SPAM® products must grow on trees there. That would be neat, but to believe it you must have taken a coconut to the head. The true root of the island's love for SPAM® products goes back to World War II, when the luncheon meat was served to GIs. By the end of the war, SPAM® products were adopted into local culture, with Fried SPAM® Classic and rice becoming a popular meal. The unique flavor quickly found its way into other Hawaiian cuisine, from SPAM® Fried Wontons to SPAM® Musubi, and SPAM® products became a fixture for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today you'll find SPAM® dishes served everywhere from convenience stores to restaurants, reflecting a demand that is unmatched by any place in the world."
OK, back to Kiki.
So what do you make of this political mailer?
If I saw a postcard like that, I'd think, nice work. Spam. Cool. That's great. We had a Spam shortage recently, so this is good news. Hawaii has always had a food culture that embraces a lot of influences. It has embraced no other foreign resource more than Spam. I remember growing up with Spam and it may have been as an adult that I finally realized that Spam was not originally from Hawaii. I just assumed that it was a Hawaii thing. It felt strange to me that it was from a strange place, a mysterious place that I've never been to on the mainland. Apparently there's a Spam museum that I've never been to. All of these are legends to me. You know?
My generation doesn't think of Spam as coming from someplace else. We think of it as something that belongs to Hawaii. My dad feels the same about Vienna sausages. Spam came to him slightly later in life. For him growing up it was always canned foods, like Vienna sausages. In Hawaii we have a mild hoarding syndrome whenever there's a national disaster or a natural disaster or any kind of disaster. It sends people to the store to buy toilet paper and Spam. Those are our two staples in life.
Toilet Paper and Spam needs to be the title of someone's memoir.
I would love to write one, so hopefully that can be mine. Part of me just doesn't understand what the fuss is about. I don't understand why people think it's gross, because it's an essential. Why even make this part of the conversation? Do you make toilet paper part of the conversation? These are things that you need for basic life. So, yeah, I guess it's part of the culture of dialogue in that this is the dialogue that I'm having away from Hawaii. I feel like you have to celebrate your culture more loudly when you're not participating in it, when you're not currently in the place where it exists. I think it's a little bit strange to my family where they're like, "Oh, Kiki has to become the Spam spokesperson," because I've actually done work specifically for Spam.
Oh, please instantly tell me more about that!
I wrote a recipe for Munchies. Vice did this whole thing with Spam during pandemic. I wrote a recipe for a Spam Musubi birthday cake that went viral in Hawaii in a screenshot—in a good way. People were like, "Oh, my God. I don't know why I didn't think of this." Or, "Oh, my gosh. I make a version of this." It's really a ridiculous thing. The problem with the screenshot is that you don't see what the cake is actually made of. You just see a whole bunch of rice and some Spam on it.
The Spam Musubirthday cake was made of a condiment called andasu. It's Okinawan, where it's typically miso mixed with sugar, rice wine, and pork fat. I made a version that recalled more of my Chinese heritage using chicken fat. I made a condiment that was chicken fat, rice wine, sugar, and white miso. I mixed it into hot rice, made a cake out of it, and then layered with fried egg and teriyaki-marinated Spam. It was really good. I had to make a whole bunch of them for recipe testing. Pretty much all my neighbors at some point got big chunks of this rice and chicken fat Spam cake. It went viral in Hawaii as a screenshot of me in a Spam colored dress staring at this clearly ridiculous rice and Spam birthday cake. Yeah, I love Spam. Did you see the Spam can I crocheted?
That is a glorious object. Any other thoughts on how a commercial product or ingredient becomes so tied to Hawaii's cuisine?
My dad grew up on Oahu. I also partially grew up on Oahu. But his family lived on Kauai for many generations, and over all these generations, there was a lot of intermarriage. So I am actually what you'd call a poi dog, or a mutt. Many of our ancestors moved from different areas of the world to work on Hawaii's sugar cane plantations. This is very, very common throughout most local families of Hawaii, there's going to be a great ethnic diversity within one family, and there's going to be a lot of history that involves the plantations. The plantations gave rise to Hawaii's local food. I say "Hawaii's local food" very deliberately, because that includes some Hawaiian food. But Hawaiian food is a distinct category in itself.
Hawaiian is an ethnicity, and of course, there's a cuisine attached to that ethnicity. Everybody else who came later on—the Portuguese, the Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, and all the many different ethnic groups—took on each aspects of each other's cuisines. They cook together, they have to live together, they have to put up with each other, and many of them intermarried. That grew into its own cuisine. It's not fusion, because nobody came and took different aspects and smashed them together. The food that I grew up on, and the food that is the background of what I serve, exists, as a distinct cuisine. You have Korean Galbi on one plate that very comfortably sits next to macaroni salad, and that's served with rice, of course, and obviously that's a plate lunch.
This is something that has existed for decades, if not longer, and there, we have Hawaii's local food. It's a really interesting dichotomy of saying, "Hawaii's local food." Because when we say local in Hawaii, it doesn't mean "of the place." It means it was brought from another place and accepted into Hawaii. So that, we can call it local.
It's looked like different things in the last, I would say, over the course of my lifetime. When I was a baby, the places to go were places that focused on using Pacific influences with French techniques, and there wasn't, when I was a really little kid, such an emphasis on local ingredients. Maybe on some things, certain fish and certain vegetables. But there wasn't really a very holistic way of looking at Hawaii's resources because we imported and we still import the vast majority of our food from the mainland, which is ridiculous. It's so expensive. Even now, most of Hawaii's milk comes from the mainland. Most of Hawaii's food does come from the mainland. There's that. It's very hard to condense into just a few sentences.
We have in Hawaii this impulse to make other peoples' food our own. You have to remember that, and the way that I approach Hawaii's local food, and Hawaii's food, and my own food, is that it's not a static thing. It's something that's constantly innovative and interesting, and yes, we have the classics, yes, we have Kalua pig and Spam musubi. These have been classics for quite a long time now. But that doesn't mean that you can't tweak them a little bit, or add your own flair. Because what I find so exciting about Hawaii's food is people encountering it for the first time are like, "OK, Hawaiian food is this. Hawaii's local food is this, these few categories." But if you even just go to my family's potluck dinners, they're constantly bringing new things.
I think what a lot of outsiders don't realize about Hawaii is that we love bringing food from one place to another. Bearing food great distances, or even small distances, and sharing food is like such a part of Hawaii's food culture. In Hawaii, a lot of our food culture is influenced by Japanese food culture, but also by Japanese culture in general. Omiyage is something that you bring home to people from your travels. You always have to show up with a gift, and you always have to think of others when you're traveling and bring something back. Usually, it's food. With this tradition of Omiyage, you are constantly bringing new food to people.
When you bring new food and new flavors to people, they're going to want to incorporate it into what they already know and enjoy and eat. Hawaii's food is constantly evolving, it's constantly changing, and I feel like it's this big, warm hug that keeps bringing in new flavors and influences. I want to reiterate: Hawaii's food is not static.
To learn more about Kiki's other passions and inventive crochet projects, listen to the full interview on the Communal Table podcast. To find out more about the apparent role of Spam in the upcoming administration, contact your Congressperson (though perhaps wait a bit—they're kinda busy). To get down with some Spam recipes at home, crack open a can and get cooking.