Koreans eat more Spam than anyone in the world after the people of Hawaii and Guam. It is more popular among people in South Korea than Coca-Cola or KFC.
Western travelers in Korea are always surprised to witness the Korean love of Spam, especially when it's in the form of beautifully packaged Spam gift sets that the majority of Koreans love to give and receive. It's a logical reaction, especially because Korea is country that is almost obsessed with health food marketing; “well-being” is a popular slogan slapped on almost anything edible.
Spam's trip to Korea is an interesting one, and it began in Minnesota in 1937, when Hormel Foods first created Spam to use up the leftover pork shoulder in its meat factory. It wasn't the first luncheon meat on the market, but the company came up with a name that stuck. The Hormel company sponsored a contest offering a cash prize for the best name, and an employee abbreviated “spiced ham” into “Spam”.*
But it was World War II that really put Spam on the map, as millions of tins were sent to war-ravaged Europe as part of the lend-lease program. Every week, America sent 15 million cans of Spam luncheon meat to Allied troops every week. It was a cheap, portable protein that was also shelf-stable, which made it perfect for the military diet.
Soldiers suffered from an excess of Spam, calling it “meat that didn't pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training”. But its ready-to-use convenience fulfilled Hormel's marketing slogan of the “miracle meat in a can” for U.S. Troops. So the use of Spam on military bases continued into the War in the Pacific, and the surplus from military bases began to trickle into the native populations. This is how Spam was first introduced to Koreans in desperate times when protein was very scarce.
As noted before, the people of Guam and Hawaii eat more Spam than anyone else. Koreans are the next largest consumers outside of the United States (Guam is a U.S. Protectorate), but Spam is also hugely popular in the Philippines, Okinawa and Saipan, all places with significant U.S. military occupations.
During the very lean post-war years when food (and especially protein) was scarce and most didn't have access to refrigerators, Spam continued to be smuggled off military bases into the Korean black-market (coffee, gum, chocolate, and powdered milk were also introduced to the larger Korean population by U.S. troops during this period) But Spam was such a prized food that the troops often used it as a bartering tool with locals in exchange for information or services. Anything American was desirable; Spam's black-market status increased its cache.
Spam remained an illegal and difficult-to-obtain item for decades because of rigid import laws. Then in 1987, CJ Corp. bought the rights from Hormel and began producing its own version of Spam at a Korean factory. It began to fly off the shelves and is currently one of the most popular food gifts to give during the holidays.
South Korea is now home to the 15th largest economy in the world, so Spam's popularity can no longer be attributed to a lack of refrigerators or protein. Now Koreans just enjoy Spam for its convenience and taste; the canned meat improves in translation when fried and paired with a fiery kimchi stew and a bowl of rice.
Spam in Korea also never had to contend with the image problem it has in the States. Even though there is still a strong blue-collar customer base in America, the word Spam is synonymous with the junk e-mail that clogs up our email inboxes or “something posing as meat”. But even in America, Spam cannot be separated from a time of great uncertainty, conflict and bloodshed. During the Atomic Age, Americans were fascinated by advances in food technology; canned foods could survive for years in bomb shelters during a nuclear war.
Koreans sometimes put spam in fried rice, kimbap rolls and kimchi stew. Spam, hot dogs, cheese and sometimes canned baked bean, all military surplus foods, are ingredients in the spicy Korean “budae chigae” (“budae”= army and “chigae”= stew). It's less-popular name is “Johnson tang”, referencing President Lyndon B. Johnson. Budae chigae is still hugely popular in Korea, decades after the post-war famine. Koreans took Spam, with its legacy of American occupation, and transformed it into a delicious stew.
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Edwards, Paul M. Korean War Almanac. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Print. From Minnesota Fat To Seoul Food: Spam In America And The Pacific Rim
George H.Lewis - The Journal Of Popular Culture – 2000
Koreana : a Quarterly on Korean Art & Culture. Web. 30 Oct. 2011
Popham, Peter. "From Spam Sales to Rice Riots- The Food Crisis Bites
The Independent." The Independent | News. Web. 30 Oct. 2011