Spam, the special foodie gift in South Korea
Spam containers are processed at a spam factory in Jincheon, South Korea on August 18 (AFP photo)
JINCHEON, South Korea: From the frontlines of war to a staple of institutional catering, spam is rarely considered a gourmet ingredient, but canned pink meat holds a unique position in South Korea as a gift best-selling vacation rental.
Over time, spam has become a part of South Korean food culture, with young and old favoring canned pink block.
Ahead of the Chuseok Harvest Festival which begins on Sunday – one of Korea’s biggest celebrations and an occasion for mass family gatherings – wooden boxes showcasing the blue and yellow boxes, nestled in packing straw, line the shelves of both major retailers and local convenience stores.
A premium 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-box set for 30,000 won. .
Office worker Lee Yoon-ho bought five to meet people, calling it “the most universal” gift.
“It’s affordable and everyone loves it,” he said. “All South Koreans love spam.”
In the West, the pink brick of precooked pork shoulder and ham first launched by American conglomerate Hormel Foods in 1937 is now largely a thrifty pantry item.
But around 213 billion won of spam gift boxes were sold in South Korea last year, six times more than in 2008, when the figure was first recorded.
A spokeswoman for supermarket giant Homeplus said baskets of canned meat ranked second, third and fourth among its top-selling products at the latest Chuseok.
The concept would be incomprehensible elsewhere, according to Da-Hae West, author of the English cookbook “Eat Korean”.
“In Western countries spam is seen as a cheap substitute for fresh meat and people today tend to view it quite negatively as they associate it with poor quality rations and meat,” a- she told AFP.
But the highly processed aspects of spam that turn the stomachs of some diners have actually increased its appeal in Korean cuisine, she said.
“Because spam is both salty and high in fat, it complements the spicy and pungent elements of Korean cuisine very well – especially kimchi, as the flavors balance each other out.”
– Premium product –
Spam was introduced to the peninsula by the US military in the 1950s, when the food supply for civilians was depleted – along with scarce meat – during the Korean War.
Some Koreans received the foreign canned meat – then a symbol of nutrition and wealth – from American soldiers, while others found pieces of spam dumped near military encampments.
In a time of crushing poverty, South Koreans invented a new menu called “budae jjigae” – which roughly translates to “army stew” – a concoction of spam, canned beans, sliced cheese and of kimchi which is still very popular.
And over time, spam has become a part of South Korean food culture, with young and old favoring canned pink block.
“It is considered a premium product in Korea,” said Jaynee Dykes, Hormel brand manager.
American snowboarder and Olympian Chloe Kim – who has parents born in Korea – grew up eating spam and it remains one of her favorite snacks.
“We always have spam in our food storage,” her father told USA Today Sports at the Winter Olympics in the South in February, when Kim won gold.
– I love –
Spam became a popular giveaway during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when South Koreans searched for an affordable alternative to fruit baskets and beef sets during giveaway season.
But even after the recovery, the demand for gift boxes continues to grow in the world’s 11th largest economy.
It is now the second-largest consumer of spam after the United States, according to Hormel Foods, despite having a population less than one-sixth the size.
The harvest festival and the Lunar New Year account for half of the annual spam sales of local Hormel licensee CJ CheilJedang, a spokesperson told AFP.
Workers at a company factory in North Chungcheong Province have been assembling 45,000 gift boxes every day since May, a 10% increase from last year, while a special team from the group of “Chuseok” work develops the best marketing approach.
Buyer Choi Yoon-sun told AFP: “Spam is the perfect Chuseok gift to give or receive.
“Even if you get several boxes, you can keep it for a long time so that’s good,” she said. “As a child, I loved receiving spam sets during Chuseok, but now that I’m married, I love him even more.”