• For the love of breakfast Spam! (Yasmin Noone)
Spam – the old-fashioned American luncheon meat covered in gelatine – is a Hong Kong culinary staple. Given the incredible food culture on tap throughout the modern Chinese territory, we only have one question: why?
By
Yasmin Noone

14 Jan 2019 - 10:33 AM  UPDATED 15 Jan 2019 - 10:25 AM

Hong Kong is home to many of the finest tasting culinary creations throughout Asia. With so many Cantonese classics to choose from – like roast goose, dim sum, char siu, brisket noodles and clay pot rice – you’ve got to wonder why people living in the bustling Chinese territory are crazy about Spam.

That’s right, Spam – the old-fashioned American luncheon meat packaged in a can.

While sighting slices of the ultra-processed meat product may drum updated memories of lacklustre childhood lunches in Australia, the canned ham covered in gelatine is actually a popular food staple in the modern metropolis of Hong Kong.

“In Cantonese, Spam literally means lunch meat, although we do often have it for breakfast. A typical Hong Kong breakfast is a bowl of soup served with macaroni noodles, fried Spam and an egg on top.”

“It’s a quick food but in Hong Kong, it’s so very popular,” a spokesperson from the Cordis hotel, who’s well versed on all matters of locally available food from fine dining culture to street fare, tells SBS.

“In Cantonese, Spam literally means lunch meat, although we do often have it for breakfast. A typical Hong Kong breakfast is a bowl of soup served with macaroni noodles, fried Spam and an egg on top.”

This dish is also commonly featured on breakfast menus at cha chaan tengs – affordable tea restaurants – throughout Hong Kong.

“Spam is also used in the dish, Hong Kong fried noodles. We usually put noodles together with the Spam and pan fry it.”

The no-frills ham is the centrepiece in egg and ham sandwiches, sold at takeaway or fast food outlets throughout Hong Kong. And then there’s the hearty, comfort dish – ramen noodle soup with scrambled eggs, fried Spam and Asian greens – that can be eaten at breakfast or lunch.

I sampled this particular meal titled ‘top lunch meat slippery egg noodles’ at the cha chaan teng chain, Tai Hing situated in Mong Kok in the Yau Tsim Mong District of Hong Kong. The Spam-y dish is an affordable restaurant top-seller, costing $48 HKD (around $8.50 AUD).

About three minutes after the dish was ordered, the soup appeared piping hot on my table. The scrambled egg melted into the soup base as two crispy thick slices of Spam soaked up a homemade broth, topped with sesame oil.

The combination of the ingredients produced a cheap and quick flavour-punch my hunger and the need for a slightly greasy, salty kick.

Spam is now available in 44 countries throughout the world.

Why is Spam so popular in Hong Kong?

Spam was created in 1937 by Hormel Foods Corporation. The canned meat gained international popularity after it was used in rations during World War II and people across the world realised that Spam could be easily stored and preserved.

Spam offered a cheap and versatile home-based alternative to butcher-sliced luncheon meat at a time when meat was scarce and costly. According to ‘The Diaspora of Spam’ from the New York Academy of Medicine’s online library, Spam’s popularity continued after the war, in some countries like Hong Kong that had limited land available for agricultural use.

A post World War II manufacturing boom saw a rise in factory workers wanting cheap and easy meals. In the 1950s, cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong tapped into this demand by combining Chinese ingredients with Western foods like butter and cheese (which were previously considered luxury items) and selling dishes at affordable prices. The culinary merge resulted in such creations like Coca-Cola chicken wings, egg waffles and instant noodles with Spam.

Make Spam plans
Army base stew (budae jjigae)

They say necessity is the mother of invention and this stew is a sterling example of that sentiment. Budae jjigae (army base stew) was created in Uijeongbu, an hour north of Seoul, soon after the Korean War when food scarcity led starving Koreans to concoct a meal using food that was discarded or handed out at US military bases.

Bitter gourd, egg and Spam stir-fry (goya champuru)

This simple stir-fry has its roots in over 1000 years of trade history between Okinawa and South-East Asia, Japan, China and, more recently, America. It is the iconic dish of Okinawa and tells the island’s whole story on just one plate. Although you can substitute pork belly for the Spam if you have an aversion, just know that I asked one 90-year-old Okinawan lady what people had used on the island for their goya champuru before Spam. Her response: "I don’t even remember."

Word of the luncheon meat soon spread beyond Hong Kong and China, to the whole of Asia. ‘The Diaspora of Spam’ explains that a clever marketing machine was behind its continent-wide household fame. 

“Hormel, like many other industries post-war, had to re-market itself. Hormel attempted to re-brand Spam as the food for the modern 1950s housewife. The company’s efforts were successful in Hong Kong and across the Asian continent,” reads ‘The Diaspora of Spam’.

Across Asia today, Spam is sold in gift packs and is considered a gourmet item with Spam gift boxes typically appearing in stores around Chinese New Year.

Spam is now available in 44 countries throughout the world. The company’s online shop currently sells Spam branded merchandise like skateboards, fancy dress costumes, polo shirts, backpacks and teddy bears.

Given that the gelatine–laced luncheon meat is so embedded in the food culture of Hong Kong, there’s no doubt that culturally iconic dishes like macaroni and Spam, and slippery egg noodles with Spam are here to stay.

 

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