Spam musubi's appeal often lost in translation


POSTED: Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about only-in-Hawaii foods—top of the list, Spam musubi. Got a question from the editor: “;Yes, but what does it taste like?”;

This stumped me for a good number of minutes. Obviously, “;it tastes like Spam and rice”; wasn't going to cut it, so I threw out the words salty, greasy and umami (for the nori).

Outside Hawaii they are fascinated, sometimes confused and often amused by our affinity for Spam. Spam musubi compounds the matter. Google the words and you'll find such commentary as:

» A “;bizarre Japanese/Hawaiian hybrid of weirdness,”; from ieatfood.net, attached to an article on vegan Spam. (Talk about weird.)

» “;Spam musubi is probably to Hawaii what boudin is to us,”; from a blog run by the Times newspaper of Acadiana in Lafayette, La. (What is boudin? A sausage.)

» “;A big rectangle of sushi rice, a slice of grilled—or fried—Spam, all wrapped up in a piece of nori. Surprisingly tasty,”; from traveldk.com. (Surprisingly accurate.)

This all came up because of Janet Tamura's request for a specific Spam musubi recipe, from Jean Watanabe Hee, author of the “;Hawaii's Best ...”; cookbooks. Her recipe for a teriyaki-tinged Spam musubi is in “;Hawaii's Best Pupus and Potlucks”; (Mutual Publishing, 2004).

Plus, summer is here. Spam musubi is a year-round thing, but if it had a season it would be summer. Why not put forth a few ideas for mixing up this picnic staple?

If you are a musubi novice, be aware that you need a plastic or acrylic musubi mold. Go to a Longs Drugs store. If you are reading this in a Longs-deprived part of the world, you can order a mold on amazon.com for the outrageous price of $9.90, plus $5.95 shipping. Sheesh. Better you should bribe someone in Hawaii to send you one (not me).

Some people say you can make Spam musubi using an empty Spam can as a mold, or form the rice with your hands. There are also people who say you should flavor the rice with vinegar and sugar—like sushi. I don't believe in any of that. Get a mold; use plain white rice. Maintain the simple, easy Zen of the musubi.

You'll also need about 6 cups cooked rice, a package of nori (dried seaweed sheets; they come in packages of 10) and a can of Spam. Cut the nori sheets in half; slice and fry Spam. Center a nori sheet under the mold. Fill mold with rice, top with Spam, compress with the presser that comes with the mold. Slide off the mold and wrap nori around it all. A little water will seal the deal. You're done when you run out of one of your three key ingredients.

Now, to fancy it up:

» Teri-musubi (Hee's recipe): Combine 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese sweet wine). Cook Spam slices in this mixture.

» Korean-style (from “;Hawaii Cooks with Spam”; by Muriel Miura): Toss rice with 1 teaspoon sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon sesame-chili oil. Pack a layer of chopped kim chee between rice and Spam.

» Triple nori (my personal favorite): Mix a cup of furikake (seasoned nori flakes) into the rice. Spread a layer of tsukudani (nori paste, sold in Asian markets) between rice and Spam. This plus the nori wrapper equals a triple dose.

» Ume flavor: If you are a big fan of ume (Japanese pickled plum) in regular musubi, ume paste (also sold in Asian markets) brings this super-salty flavor to your Spam creation, without seeds.

Write “;By Request,”; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813. Send e-mail to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).