Spam: From ashes of war to hol­i­day gift

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - World - AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

JINCHEON, South Korea — From the front lines of war to a sta­ple of in­sti­tu­tional ca­ter­ing, Spam is rarely seen as a gourmet in­gre­di­ent — but the canned pink meat holds a unique po­si­tion in South Korea as a top-sell­ing gift.

Ahead of the Chuseok har­vest fes­ti­val which started on Sun­day — one of the coun­try’s big­gest cel­e­bra­tions and an oc­ca­sion for mass fam­ily gath­er­ings — pre­sen­ta­tion wooden boxes of the blue­and-yel­low tins, nes­tled in pack­ing straw, line the shelves of ma­jor re­tail­ers and con­ve­nience stores.

An up­mar­ket black-la­bel pack with six cans of Spam and two bot­tles of An­dalu­sian olive oil costs over 90,000 won ($80), but the most pop­u­lar ver­sion is a nine-tin set at 30,000 won.

Of­fice worker Lee Yoon-ho bought five to give ac­quain­tances, call­ing it “the most uni­ver­sal” present.

“It’s af­ford­able and ev­ery­one likes it,” he said. “All South Kore­ans like Spam.”

In the West, the pink brick of pre­cooked pork shoul­der and ham first launched by US con­glom­er­ate Hormel Foods in 1937 is now largely a thrifty pantry item.

But around 213 bil­lion won worth of Spam gift boxes were sold in South Korea last year — six times as much as in 2008, when the fig­ure was first recorded.

Su­per­mar­ket gi­ant Home­plus said the tinned meat ham­pers ranked sec­ond, third and fourth in its topselling prod­ucts last Chuseok.

The con­cept would be in­com­pre­hen­si­ble else­where, ac­cord­ing to Da-Hae West, au­thor of the Eng­lish-lan­guage cook­book Eat Korean.

“In West­ern coun­tries, Spam is con­sid­ered a cheap sub­sti­tute to fresh meat and peo­ple nowa­days tend to view it fairly neg­a­tively as they as­so­ciate it with ra­tion packs and poor-qual­ity meat,” she said.

But the highly pro­cessed as­pects of Spam that turn some din­ers’ stom­achs ac­tu­ally en­hanced its ap­peal in Korean cui­sine, she said.

“Be­cause Spam is both salty and high in fat, it com­pli­ments the spicy, tangy el­e­ments of Korean food very well — par­tic­u­larly kim­chi, as the fla­vors bal­ance each other out.”

Spam was in­tro­duced to the Korean Penin­sula by the US army in the 1950s, when civil­ian food sup­plies were run­ning low — with meat scarce — dur­ing the Korean War.

South Kore­ans in­vented a new menu called bu­dae jjiga — roughly trans­lat­ing into “army stew” — a con­coc­tion of Spam, canned beans, sliced cheese and kim­chi, which is still widely pop­u­lar.

And over time Spam has be­come a part of South Korean food cul­ture, with both young and old fa­vor­ing the canned pink block.

Spam emerged as a pop­u­lar gift dur­ing the Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis of the late 1990s, when South Kore­ans sought an af­ford­able al­ter­na­tive to fruit bas­kets and beef sets dur­ing the sea­son of giv­ing.

But even after the re­cov­ery, de­mand for the gift boxes con­tin­ues to grow in the world’s 11th-largest econ­omy.

It is now the sec­ond big­gest con­sumer of Spam after the United States, ac­cord­ing to Hormel Foods, de­spite hav­ing a pop­u­la­tion less than a sixth of the size.

HYOUNG CHANG / THE DEN­VER POST VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Marck Weiss of Vir­ginia Beach tastes a sam­ple of beer dur­ing the 36th Great Amer­i­can Beer Fes­ti­val in Den­ver, Colorado, on Satur­day. The Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion hosted thou­sands of en­thu­si­asts who were able to sam­ple more than 4,000 dif­fer­ent beers.

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