Macaroni salad, Kalua pork, and Japanese-style rice probably sounds like a strange meal.
Yet this odd mix of foods is a version of a popular and now traditional dish in Hawaii, called “plate lunch,” that celebrates the island chain’s diverse history.
Historians think the dish originated with the fruit and sugar plantation workers who came to Hawaii in the 1800s from places like Japan, China, Portugal, and the Philippines. The laborers didn’t pack sandwiches for lunch — they ate canned or cold meats, with sides like left over rice, eggs, and pickles.
Workers from different backgrounds tired of eating the same staples, over and over again, so they shared their meals with each other. Now iterations of the eclectic dish are served all over Hawaii.
I recently travelled to Hawaii and a friend told me that I had to try plate lunch. She recommended one of those great hole-in-the-wall-style restaurants in Hilo, and I ordered this:
But my server insisted that I also try another traditional Hawaiian food: Spam musubi.
Spam musubi is a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped with a piece of dried nori seaweed. It looks like supersized pieces of sushi (note: there is also a Spam sushi dish):
My immediate look of disgust tipped him off that I wasn’t exactly on board with the idea.
The perception of Spam in Hawaii is very different than in the continental US, he told me. On the main land, the idea of “Spam” has come to mean just any kind of canned mystery meat, and it really gets a bad wrap — think “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and the term “spam email.”
But according to its label, Spam is essentially a cocktail of pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, and sugar, with potato starch to bind all the ingredients together and sodium nitrate to preserve it. And there’s a fascinating reason why Spam is so popular in Hawaii.
During World War II it was impossible to deliver fresh meat to the front lines. Spam preserved easily, so it became a staple of the US soldiers’ diets. Soldiers came up with some delightful nicknames for it, including “ham that didn’t pass its physical” and “meatloaf without basic training.”
Throughout World War II and the many territory occupations that followed it, Spam hitchhiked with soldiers to Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and other Pacific Islands. Local cultures weaved it into their cuisines, so Spam is now a relic of the United States’ power trip through the Pacific.
I decided to take the plunge. I tried Spam musubi and Spam sushi:
Maybe it was partly thanks to the history lesson from my server, but I was surprised to find that I actually liked it. It tasted salty and not quite the texture you’d expect from meat, but all in all, not too bad.
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