SEOUL, South Korea — 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.
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.
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.
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South Korea has become the largest consumer of Spam outside the United States, according to the local producer. And that does not include the knockoffs that flood the market.
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 stationed at U.S. bases in the 1950s. “Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well-connected.”
These days, it is sometimes easy to forget the U.S. military presence that has lasted for decades.
The sprawling military base in the heart of Seoul, the capital, is shrinking in deference to Korean sensibilities, and even the famed district of Itaewon, once a warren of bars for servicemen, is now a stylish neighborhood with a more international feel.
But Spam remains so much a part of the fabric of culinary life here that many young people have no idea of its origins, even as they order “military stew,” or budaejjigae.
Restaurants that specialize in the stew — a concoction that often mixes Spam with the more-indigenous kimchi — dot urban alleys.
Some harried Korean mothers revel in the convenience of opening a can and serving a breakfast of pan-fried Spam with eggs. A mixture of little cubes of Spam, sour kimchi and rice (stir-fried and preferably served with an egg sunnyside up on top) is a favorite snack Korean women say they crave when pregnant.
And then there are the gift boxes, which have helped loft 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.”
George Lewis, a sociologist at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., noted in a 2000 article in the Journal of Popular Culture that Spam won its “highest” status in South Korea.
Here, he observed, Spam not only outranked Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken in status but was given as a gift “on occasions of importance when one wishes to pay special honor and proper respect.”
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?
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 (which, incidentally, lent its name to those irritating, unwanted emails known as spam).
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 Korean studies lecturer 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.”
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 castaways and began mixing them, or black-market U.S. military rations, with kimchi. (The dish is also sometimes called “Johnson’s Stew” to honor President Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited in 1966 and promised continued U.S. economic aid.)
Even some who do not consider themselves big fans said that though they did not live through the war, they have their own fond memories of Spam as a fixture of their childhoods.
Seo Soo-kyung, 40, said it had been a revelation when her American brother-in-law once looked shocked to see her buy Spam and told her it was “junk food for the homeless in the U.S.”
“To me, Spam was just a tasteful and convenient food that mother used to cook for us,” she said. “The thing about Spam is that it goes marvelously well with kimchi and rice.”