Our tastes are often molded by memory. In particular, we find ourselves fond of foods that make us nostalgic, dishes that take us back to a cherished moment, tastes that reestablish a feeling or experience, and meals that help us to feel like we’ve returned to ourselves and remember who we are. This makes sense to me. More puzzling than the fact that memory can impact our tastes buds in a powerful way is the possibility that these buds can even be affected by memories that are not our own.
Spam. God, what the fuck is spam, and why am I so keen on eating it? I’m fairly certain that if someone introduced Spam to me as an adult, I would snobbishly spit out the salty and gelatinous mess and give that someone a damn dirty stare. But it was introduced to me by my parents as a treat to cherish. For them, Spam signified a moment in Korean history that gave them a deep feeling of ambivalence: the Korean War. The weird canned good was brought over to the peninsula by American soldiers and became a coveted luxury (yes, a luxury) in the dark and desperate years immediately following the war. At a time when meat was difficult to come by, it denoted prosperity and nutrition, luxury and finesse. It became a sign of America, an image of prosperity and processed privilege, an imagining of an unreal future where a canned meat equaled progress. And, of course, symbols of everything America were and continue to be met with deeply uncertain sentiments. America as savior. America as imperialists. America as progress. America as excess. America, the threat to a strong (and masculinist) Korean national identity. Whether or not Spam is delicious is obviously arguable, and also a bit irrelevant, to me. What is inarguable is the fact that Spam holds a lot of power over our memories (and therefore, our taste buds) because of the moment of history it represents. This canned treat is still categorically popular in S. Korea. Here’s an interesting tidbit: S. Korea is the second largest consumer of Spam in the world, eating roughly half as much as the U.S., which has six times as many residents. My people sure love their salty pork products.
Anywho, back to the original point. I was not born in S. Korea, and I don’t have my own memories of the war, or a remembrance of the desperation that marked its aftermath. With every gloopy bite, I don’t close my eyes and quiver with anticipation for feelings and memories to come. I don’t think about American soldiers, progress, safety, poverty, imperialism, or anything beyond “this is really fucking salty.” But I love it, anyway. I blame my grandparents and parents. They grew up with this experience. And though they didn’t say much about Korean history when pan frying this “meat”, I witnessed their strange love for Spam and thought it was nice. And through either genetics or osmosis, I began to harbor my own strange love for the canned good.
I’m not saying that the only reason Koreans love Spam is because of the history/circumstances surrounding its introduction – I certainly know people who straight up love it. But I think it’s bizarre and lovely that I somehow absorbed my parents’ love and memory of the boxed pork. It’s perhaps a testament to my love for them that I inherited their fondness for a food that I could have hated. So, to all the naysayers who proselytize about Spam being the worst: suck it. I’ll love it for as long as I love my parents and grandparents, and you won’t take that away from me.
And now, the recipe.
Kimchi Spam Fried Rice
Adapted from Dale Talde’s Recipe (featured on Buzzfeed)
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Prep time: 45 minutes
2 cups white jasmine rice, cooked
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
3 eggs, beaten in a bowl until yolks and whites are combined
1 12-ounce container Spam, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Kimchi, strained, thinly sliced, liquid reserved
1 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 bunch scallions, sliced in 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoons fish sauce (optional, but you should totally use it)
- Heat 2 tablespoons canola oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat (I used my handy dandy cast iron wok). Add the egg mixture to the hot skillet all at once, turn the heat down to medium, and use a flexible spatula to move the egg around the skillet constantly. Just when the egg is fully cooked (around 45 seconds), put the eggs on a plate and set aside.
- Return the skillet to medium-high heat, then add 1 tablespoon of canola oil and the cubed spam. Cook the spam, stirring every 30 seconds or so, until they are golden brown, about 4 minutes.
- Add the onion and stir for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, stirring frequently to make sure that the minced garlic doesn’t burn, about another 2 minutes.
- Add butter, and let it melt. Add the sesame oil, chopped kimchi, and hot pepper flakes, and cook for about 2 minutes. Make sure to stir. Add the reserved kimchi liquid (should amount to about half a cup) and stir.
- Add your already cooked rice, and stir until all of the rice is fully coated. Add the cooked eggs, sliced scallions, soy sauce, and fish sauce, and continue to stir.
- Turn off heat, serve fried rice into bowls.
- If you want to add fried eggs, put that shit on top! (the only reason I didn’t add a fried egg atop my kimchi spam fried rice, the other day, is because I had already consumed 3 eggs that day. Whoops.)