by Terry Watada
editor’s note: Terry Watada is on summer break and will return in October. In the interim, we thought we’d publish some “classic” columns by Terry.
The 1998 Powell Street Festival, 22nd edition, featured a new wrinkle this year. Besides the ever-popular salmon barbeque, tako yaki, curry beef, and fresh corn on the cob, there was the humble Spam musubi or Spam sushi as it was advertised! I couldn’t believe it, Spam musubi!
I was first introduced to this marvellous concoction in the pacific state of Hawaii. My wife insisted I have one. I was hesitant since I equated Spam with Klick, Kam or whatever was the Canadian equivalent of canned meat (which wasn’t quite meat, more meat-like than anything). But I was willing to try after much persuasion. So we went to the nearest mall and walked into Woolworth’s. There at the lunch counter were all kinds of okazu: chicken teri (as chicken teriyaki is called there), long rice (glass noodles) and musubi. There was the traditional umeboshi kind and the absurd Spam. My doubts still plagued me but what the heck! I bought one for a dollar and bit into the most succulent onigiri I ever had (musubi is a term I wasn’t familiar with but older nisei told me it was what they called onigiri when they were kids). Whatever it was called, it was ambrosia!
Spam musubi is basically Spam, flavoured or plain steamed rice, and maki nori. The Woolworth version contains a teriyaki sauce underneath the meat. Other versions use combinations of furikake, nori tsukudani (nori in a bottle) and takuwan. Some unique examples include egg pancake, Spam, furikake and takuwan surrounded by rice and wrapped in nori; and teriyaki fried Spam, furikake and salt on top of rice with nori strip.
As far as Hawaiians can recall, Spam musubi wasn’t even thought of until the late 1980s. Ann Kondo Corum, author of Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook, included a recipe in 1987 (probably among the first to introduce the delicacy). The popular K59 radio hosts Michael W. Perry and Larry Price once asked their listeners to name their favourite junk food. The governor at the time (1989) John Waihee said his was Spam musubi. That same year, the first Spam Pro Am took place, a Spam musubi competition. The owner of French Gourmet Catering created an 800-pound musubi using 500 pounds of rice and 300 pounds of Spam.
Hawaii is the largest per capita consumer of the much-maligned canned ham. They eat four times the national average — about four million pounds annually or 5.3 million twelve-ounce cans! The can itself (I bet most of you remember it) was recently accepted into the permanent collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian institution in Washington, D.C.
Now I know there’s a natural aversion to Spam, the mystery meat. Well, I understand: every can contains six 2-ounce servings. Each serving has 170 calories (140 of which is contained in the 16 grams of fat). There are also 750 mg of sodium and only 7 grams of protein per serving. With everything else in a Spam musubi the caloric hit is about 400 calories, with 11 grams of fat to boot.
Don’t despair, braveheart! Spam Lite was introduced in 1991. It purports to have 25% less fat and sodium. The other caveat, I suppose, is that one can costs about $4.00 (Canadian) and never but never goes on sale, well maybe in Hawaii.
The Spam musubi ingredients are important. I’m afraid the Powell Street Festival’s version wasn’t quite up to Hawaiian standards. The meat was okay (overcooked in some cases — my friends and I ate several samples) but overly salty (use Spam Lite, it is available). The rice was hard and flavourless. The nori was thin. Well maybe next year.
I can’t say it enough but the rice must be of the best quality. The chef at the Ko Olina Golf Course uses Nishiki premium rice for his Spam musubi. Others have recommended Tamaki and Kokuho Rose. I prefer Sakura rice which maintains its consistency for a couple of days.
Some like to cut their Spam thick, others thin. Most suggest getting nine slices out of a can so whatever thickness that takes is the standard. The meat should be browned, not fried until black — crisp is not bad but be careful not to let it harden until it resembles a hockey puck.
Use furikake, nori tsukudani and takuwan. Whatever it takes to flavour the onigiri. The nori wrap must be generous, whether it covers it wholly or partially. A thin strip makes you look cheap.
There must be those of you out there who are wondering how to put the whole thing together. Well in Hawaii there are acrylic Spam sushi makers. Very convenient and efficient. Shirokiya, the Japanese department store at Ala Moana Shopping Center has it. In fact, all Longs Drugstores have it as well, probably at a cheaper price. Some innovative friends of mine in Vancouver actually made one, so if going to Hawaii is not an option, get creative.
When attempting to make Spam musubi, be prepared for derision and criticism. My wife introduced the golden gem to the community picnic at Caledon Place more than a few years ago. Everyone either laughed at or denigrated it. Once sampled, however … Suffice it to say, if we don’t bring it, we see a lot of disappointed faces.
So for all of you who are curious, foolhardy or brave enough, here is a recipe right out of the pages of the Honolulu Advertiser.
½ to 1 cup cooked rice
Slice of Spam, cooked
Strip of sushi nori, about 1 ½ inch wide
Moisten musubi mold (write me and I’ll send you the dimensions) with water. Place cooked rice in mold. Press to pack, then push out from mold. Top with slice of Spam. Wrap nori strip around middle.
furikake — sprinkle a layer over rice or mix into rice.
egg pancake — beat eggs well and fry in non-stick pan, forming a thin pancake. Cut to size. Add chopped green onion to egg if desired.
takuwan — cut into thin strips and add a thin layer
Chef Alan Wong (who contributed the above recipe) suggests fried rice instead of steamed rice.
One last note: Alberta Dunbar of San Diego won the 1997 National Best Spam Recipe competition with his recipe for Spam cheesecake. Spam cheesecake! I’m not sure about this one — must be a haole thing! Tea anyone?
information source: Spam Musubi by Joan Clarke, Food Editor, Honolulu Advertiser, July 29, 1998 edition