I never thought the day would come when I would walk into a restaurant and ask for tinned luncheon meat, the kind that escapes its can with an audible slurp, the kind that thwacks the plate in a pasty chunk of quasi-goo. Yet, in placing my order at Lucky Red, a hip new takeout shop in Toronto's Chinatown, this is what I ask for. It's one of the best items on the menu.
"Spam," I say to the cashier, feeling a bit awkward. "I'll have the Spam."
Lucky Red specializes in Chinese-style buns known as bao. They're either baked or steamed, filled with such on-trend goods as fried chicken, spice-rubbed pork belly, oysters with XO sauce and the aforementioned precooked pork product, the most industrial of industrial meats.
For the Spam bao, two slices of luncheon meat are seared on a grill, which caramelizes them and brings out notes of bacon. Pickled red onions cut through the Spam's saltiness, and a tuft of iceberg lettuce adds some much-needed crunch. A sweet-and-spicy sauce made from Heinz ketchup, vinegar and sriracha rounds out the flavours. Even this quintessential processed food, it seems, can shine if it's given the proper treatment.
At a time when the words "fresh," "local" and "artisanal" seem to be the tag lines of any new restaurant, the choice to sell Spam may seem odd. But Spam is experiencing a bit of a revival in Canada from chefs who either appreciate its nostalgic value or who simply have a soft spot for trashy comfort food. Anyone can make a rib steak taste good, but crafting Spam into an appealing breakfast item or bar snack takes gumption.
For David Chau, Lucky Red's co-owner, serving Spam is as much about childhood memories as it is about flavour. He and his brothers grew up eating it.
"Spam was for those days when there were no plans for dinner, and something would have to be made on the spot, quick," he says. "As we grew older, we stopped eating Spam as much. But whenever I eat it, I remember Spam from before."
It's not uncommon to see it on the menu at Montreal's Joe Beef, where highbrow regularly holds hands with lowbrow.
"I don't like pretension," says David McMillan, chef and co-owner at Joe Beef. "I like to do things that are tongue-in-cheek funny."
Joe Beef uses Spam either straight from the can or made in-house from salted and compressed duck hearts. As a recent special, fried slices of Spam were slathered with caviar and served with sunny-side-up duck eggs. For McMillan, Spam is full of creative potential.
"We could easily end up one night tossing beautiful tomatoes from the garden with a little bit of chopped Spam and capers. It would be delicious," he says. "Or roasted cauliflower with bits of Spam instead of lardon or bacon. What's bacon? It's pretty Spam."
Spam was trademarked in 1937 by Hormel Foods Corp., a U.S. company that wanted to get into the non-perishable meat market. It is comprised of pork shoulder, salt, sugar, potato starch and preservatives. Its popularity surged after the Second World War, and it continues to do well in North America – particularly during periods of recession – even if it's often joke fodder. In the Philippines and Japan, it's a sought-after ingredient; in Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Guam, it's part of everyday culture (Guam consumes the most Spam in the world annually, at 16 cans per person).
Spam is also a staple in a Korean dish called budae jjigae (army stew), which is easily found in any traditional Korean restaurant in Canada or abroad. This soupy meal was invented during the period of strife following the Korean War, when Spam was more of a necessity than a novelty. These days, Spam is borderline revered in South Korea. You can even buy Spam gift packs there.
At Eats of Asia, a popular food stall at Calgary's Market on Macleod, chef Jay del Corro serves Spam musubi, a take on sushi that is ubiquitous in Hawaii. He sears a slice of Spam in canola oil and sandwiches it in a sushi mould with teriyaki sauce and two layers of short-grain rice. The whole thing is wrapped in nori. The salty Spam and the sweet teriyaki make for an unusual contrast, one that appears to be a hit with customers.
"It takes a lot of people by surprise when they first see it," del Corro says. "It goes parallel with other trends in the culinary world, like the whole revival of head to tail, using every part of the animal. A lot of those parts used to be considered bottom of the barrel."
Leemo Han, chef and co-owner of Toronto's Oddseoul, has also been known to play around with Spam. As specials, he has offered army stew and a sandwich made with Skippy peanut butter, Smucker's jam, a fried egg and fried Spam on challah bread.
"It's something we grew up with," Han says. "We'd eat it for breakfast – whether it was Spam and rice with eggs, or fried Spam. That sandwich was something my brother and I used to eat when we were hungry."
For Joe Beef's McMillan, however, Spam is more than just a nostalgic snack. He sees it as a versatile cured meat, one that could just as easily go with lobster as it could on a baguette with mustard.
"It's as good as mortadella from Italy," he says. "Like, what's mortadella? Mortadella is Italian Spam. What's terrine? What's pâté de campagne, or rillette, but Spam? Spam is charcuterie."