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Can to table: Baltimore-area restaurants embrace Spam as the canned meat turns 80

Since 1937, a little blue can with four yellow letters has been beloved or reviled by diners across the world. Eighty years later, its rectangular contents are making a comeback on local restaurant menus.

Spam — an iconic brand of canned meat products — is appearing in nachos, on pizzas, in sandwiches and more, appealing to diners’ sentimental longing for canned foods of yesteryear and feeding cravings for Asian and Pacific island cuisine. The pork-and-ham mixture is a staple in parts of Asia and Hawaii, from which an increasing number of Marylanders hail, and its adaptability has made it appealing to chefs working with other types of cuisines.

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“It’s as versatile as ham can be, so I mean you can lend it to any preparation,” said Stephen Carey, who serves Spam in teriyaki tacos and breakfast arepas from his El Gringo food truck. “You can put it on a sandwich, in a taco.”

At Fells Point’s Brick Oven Pizza and Manor Hill Tavern in Ellicott City, Spam is offered as a pizza topping. At Korean restaurants like Tongnamoo in Ellicott City, Spam is served in soups. And Spam musubi — a Hawaiian Spam-sushi mashup — makes frequent appearances at sushi restaurants and Hawaiian eateries.

Kaimana Chee, executive chef at Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz, holds a Spam musubi dish, a Hawaiian Spam-sushi mashup.
Kaimana Chee, executive chef at Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz, holds a Spam musubi dish, a Hawaiian Spam-sushi mashup. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Created by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp. in the years before World War II, Spam became a fixture in Hawaiian cuisine when it was brought to the islands by American troops during the war. Hawaii now consumes 7 million cans of Spam per year, according to the brand’s website, and its influence is plain to see in restaurants such as Uncle’s Hawaiian Grindz, which opened a year ago in Fallston.

“The constant game when it comes to Hawaiian food is balancing sweet and salty,” said Kosmas "Tommie" Koukoulis, the owner of Uncle’s. “Spam provides that nice saltiness — a nice salty meat that can balance out some of the fresh fruit they’re doing.”

Spam musubi is a popular snack in Hawaii, and it’s the appetizer Koukoulis most often encourages diners to try at Uncle’s. In the restaurant’s take on the dish, a slice of teriyaki-marinated, seared Spam sits atop a bed of rice, where it is rolled in seaweed and drizzled with sweet soy sesame aioli and a soy sauce reduction.

“That’s sort of our peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” said Kaimana Chee, executive chef at Uncle’s. He grew up eating Spam musubi on Oahu’s north shore. “That’s what you take to school, that’s what you eat during football games. … You can get it at 7-Eleven.”

Jiho Sohn said the Spam musubi at Uncle’s “was close to the taste of home.” The 41-year-old Mount Vernon resident was born in Korea, moved to Hawaii as a teenager and has lived in Maryland for 15 years. He grew up eating Spam, a staple in Korea, and continues to feast on the canned meat at home and in restaurants.

“It’s one of those things we just always have in our house just in case,” Sohn said.

After talking with a group of friends about their mutual love of Spam, Sohn and 15 to 20 people held a Spam-themed barbecue this summer — dubbed “God Bless (SP)America!” — with dishes that included Spam Wellington, Spam mousse, Spam musubi, Spam fried rice and Spam-and-pineapple pizza.

Created by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp. in the years before World War II, Spam became a fixture in Hawaiian cuisine when it was brought to the islands by American troops during the war.
Created by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corp. in the years before World War II, Spam became a fixture in Hawaiian cuisine when it was brought to the islands by American troops during the war. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“People in the U.S. seem to hate it,” Sohn said. “It’s just how it’s prepared.”

At Uncle’s, some customers have been skeptical of Spam dishes, but most who try Spam musubi love it, Koukoulis said. If he gets a negative reaction, usually it’s from someone who refuses to try it.

“Nine-point-eight out of 10 times it is jump-up-in-the-air delicious,” Koukoulis said. “There’s been a lot of non-Hawaiians that also have childhood memories of growing up eating Spam. They also feel a connection to it.”

Chee said he thinks skepticism around Spam comes from diners who have never eaten it cooked.

“I think there’s a stigma and a fear around Spam, but I think that’s because from what I understand is traditionally a lot of people eat it right out of the can — they cut it slice it and eat it in a sandwich, and they don’t cook it and apply heat and sear it and get nice caramelization,” Chee said. “I think that’s part of the reason people are apprehensive.”

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Spam is also the second-most-popular protein option on Uncle’s crispy wonton nachos, which are loaded with shaved coconut, corn, tomato, avocado, mango salsa, sriracha sour cream and shredded cabbage. The restaurant offers a noodle bowl with Spam, veggies and ono broth on the kids’ menu, and Chee is toying with the idea of adding a Spam burger as part of a new menu, he said.

Spam remains true to its six original ingredients: pork and ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and the preservative sodium nitrite. The brand has branched out into 15 varieties, with flavors including hickory smoke, jalapeno, Portuguese sausage and garlic.

Hormel Foods declined to provide Spam sales data specific to the Baltimore region, but the company worked with a handful of chefs in the Mid-Atlantic during a summer tour to create Spam-centered dishes. Spokesman Rick Williamson pointed to New York chef Jordan Andino’s spicy Spam breakfast burrito; Washington, D.C., chef Anthony Hoang’s musubi tacos; and D.C.-area chef Chris Kyler’s “Spam-style” Cajun boudin balls.

Spam’s proliferation in Greater Baltimore’s restaurants coincides with the growth of Asian, native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations in Maryland. Between 2000 and 2010, Maryland’s Asian population grew 51 percent, and the state’s native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population rose 37 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates. In 2016, 6.6 percent of Maryland’s population was Asian and fewer than 1 percent identified as native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, according to census data.

Carey, the chef-owner of Baltimore-based El Gringo food truck, wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Polynesian and Hawaiian cuisine, and he said seeing Spam on the menu grabs guests’ attention.

“The majority of people that are turned off have never actually had it, and when I explain exactly what it is, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well I guess I’ll try it,’” Carey said. “But it always gets people’s attention starts the conversation.”

He incorporates the canned meat in his teriyaki Spam tacos, made with lime cabbage, pineapple salsa, teriyaki sauce and sriracha. He also uses Spam in breakfast arepas, along with eggs, Monterey Jack cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and greens.

The breakfast arepa has become one of the truck’s most popular items.

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“I think [Spam] has a bad reputation just because it’s canned, but I mean when you fry it up and get some caramelization on it, it’s just really tasty ham, is what it boils down to,” Carey said. “Anything that you can use ham for you can substitute Spam.”

When the Howard County-based Victoria Restaurant Group was forging its signature pizza menu at Manor Hill Tavern, the team wanted to offer a Hawaiian pizza — often topped with pineapple and ham or Canadian bacon. Chad Wells, corporate chef for the group, took it a step further.

“It’s not a Hawaiian pizza if it doesn’t have Spam on it,” said Wells, who was born in Hawaii and grew up eating Spam.

The Ellicott City restaurant’s Blue Hawaii pizza is topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, grilled pineapple, Spam and red onion. Manor Hill Tavern roasts the Spam in a brick oven until it becomes crispy and chops it into small pieces for toppings.

“The best thing about Spam is that you can play with these textures with it,” Wells said. “You almost get kind of a bacon-y vibe to it.”

A number of guests at the tavern build their own pizzas using Spam as a topping in place of bacon, Wells said. Pepperoni and Spam; tomato, cheddar and Spam; and smoked cheddar and Spam are some of the most popular combinations. Other customers have asked to have Spam added to their macaroni and cheese — another dish Wells grew up eating.

Wells pins Spam’s popularity to the nostalgia it generates for diners in their 30s and 40s, and for baby boomers.

“Maryland’s pretty blue-collar, and with a lot of these blue-collar-type families in our region I think it was a staple for a lot of families growing up,” Wells said. “It’s the ultimate comfort food at the end of the day.”

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