Spam and Lunar New Year Seollal go hand in hand in Korea

Photo by ChiHon Kim
Photo by ChiHon Kim

Spam and Lunar New Year Seollal go hand in hand in Korea

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

For many, the word “Spam” may conjure up images of junk e-mail or a cheap substitute for fresh meat. But the canned pink meat has a different position in some parts of the world, especially in Korea.

Seollal, one of Korea’s biggest holidays kicks off Feb. 12 and is the start of the lunar year in 2021. Growing up in Daegu, Seollal meant visits to my grandparents’ home and lots of rice cake stew. During the holiday, which is observed over the course of three days, Koreans travel back to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors, wear traditional hanbok and exchange gifts with their loved ones. This year, however, many including me will not be celebrating the same as usual due to COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures still in place.

One of the staples will remain this year, pandemic or not—grocery stores will once again be stocking lots of Spam cans as they do every year. These displays of canned ham and other gifts take prime real estate at the front of stores heralding the arrival of the Lunar New Year.

Though gifts include tuna, cooking oils, and local beef (Hanwoo), the best-selling gift is Spam. So much so, it’s even an incentive for company workers during the holiday and Chuseok, Korea’s harvest festival in September. The country is now the second biggest consumer of Spam after the U.S., according to Hormel Foods, despite having a population less than a sixth of the size.

Why is Spam so popular in Korea?
The popularity of Spam in Korea is a leftover from the Korean War, when it came over with U.S. soldiers in the 1950s. By the end of the war, South Korea had plunged into crushing poverty. Meat was scarce, and for many, Spam flowed out of U.S. Army bases was the only source. Since Koreans could barely afford to eat meat during the country’s two major holidays, Spam quickly became a special treat, becoming a status symbol of wealth.

After all these years, Spam remains an integral part of the Korean food culture and is an indispensable ingredient in budae jigae, Korean for Army Stew, which is popular with the both the older and younger generations of Koreans. And its ability to pair with kimchi and rice is what keeps Koreans hooked.

Korean Spam vs. U.S. Spam
You’ll find Spam in Korea tastes taste similar to the one produced in the U.S. due to following the same production protocol, but Spam Lite in the States is closer to what the consistency and nutritional values found in the regular Korean version. Another difference is the quality which the Korean distributor says varies from the version found in the States.

According to the Korean producer, the secret to why Spam is so popular in Korea is not the taste but rather the feel of the canned meat in your mouth. This texture is due to omitting the starch used in the mixture that is standard in the U.S. version and also a 1-day aging process which makes the finished product retain more moisture. The Korean version is also not as thick as the U.S version which makes for a softer Spam.

Spam is also known for its extremely popular TV commercials in Korea. Since 1980, when Spam was officially imported into Korea, the company began advertising the pink meat block as the example of luxury.  Although in recent years Spam’s popularity has declined, in Korea, bowls of warm rice topped with Spam and kimchi still conjure great memories for generations of Koreans. And Lunar Year just wouldn’t be the same without it.

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