SEOUL » As the Lunar New Year holiday approaches, Seoul’s increasingly well-heeled residents are scouring store shelves for tastefully wrapped boxes of culinary specialties. Among their favorite choices: imported wines, choice cuts of beef, rare herbal teas. And Spam.
Yes, Spam. In the United States the gelatinous meat product in the familiar blue and yellow cans has held a place as thrifty pantry staple, culinary joke and kitschy fare for hipsters without ever losing its low-rent reputation. In Hawaii it is a dietary staple.
But in economically vibrant South Korea, the pink bricks of pork shoulder and ham have taken on a bit of glamour as they have worked their way into people’s affections.
"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 U.S. 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 who was stationed at U.S. bases in the 1950s. "Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well connected."
But Spam remains ubiquitous, so much a part of the fabric of culinary life here that many young people have no idea of its origins as they order "military stew," or "budaejjigae."
Restaurants that specialize in the stew — a concoction that often mixes Spam with the more indigenous kim chee — dot urban alleys.
And then there are the gift boxes, which have helped lift Spam’s sales in South Korea fourfold in the last decade to nearly 20,000 tons, worth $235 million, last year. The local producer, CJ Cheil Jedang, said it released 1.6 million boxed sets this holiday season alone, boasting of contents that make Koreans "full of smiles."
That is not to say everyone here has a soft spot for Spam. At a time when there is no shortage of fresh meat and organic foods have become a bit of a national obsession, some richer South Koreans turn up their noses at the canned product.
So what explains the staying power?
"Spam maintains a mythical aura on the Korean market for reasons that escape many," mused Koo Se-woong, a lecturer of Korean studies at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. "Given Spam’s introduction to South Korea through the U.S. military, it enjoyed an association with prosperity and nutritiousness during an earlier era."
Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times