Monday, January 27, 2014

The gourmet status of Spam in South Korea

“Here, Spam is a classy gift you can give to people you care about during the holiday,” said Im So-ra, a saleswoman at the high-end Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul who proudly displayed stylish boxes with cans of Spam nestled inside.

South Korea has become the largest consumer of Spam outside the United States, according to the local producer. ...

Spam’s journey from surplus pork shoulder in Minnesota to the center of the South Korean dining table began at a time of privation — hitching a ride with the American military during the Korean War and becoming a longed-for luxury in the desperate years afterward, when American troops stayed to keep the peace.

“PX food was the only way you could get meat,” said Kim Jong-sik, 79, a South Korean veteran, referring to the American Army’s post exchange stores. “Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well-connected.” ...

For a time, Korean children even considered it cool to have pan-fried slices of Spam in their school lunchboxes. (Now, it is at least not uncool.) Its cachet was obvious in a recent television commercial featuring movie and television stars. In it, a man makes a romantic dinner invitation that his picky girlfriend cannot refuse: How about slices of pan-fried Spam over a steaming bowl of rice? ...

Mr. Kim, the army veteran, is of the generation that remembers firsthand the painful origins of the product’s popularity. “In those early years, children scavenged through American Army Dumpsters, collecting Spam, sausage, half-eaten hamburger patty, bacon, bread, anything edible, and sold them to restaurants,” he said.

The stew that came to be known as budaejjigae was born that way, as people cleaned the castoffs and began mixing them, or black-market American military rations, with kimchi. ...

Mr. Kim and his wife now run Bada Sikdang, one of the most popular budaejjigae restaurants in Seoul.

During a recent lunch, Bada was packed with well-dressed young Koreans. Sung Min-kyeong, 35, an interior designer dining at the 14-table restaurant, said she could not understand what Americans found so funny about Spam while they loved hot dogs.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on why Koreans love Spam. (But please don't buy me Spam as a gift.)