Hawaiian Cuisine — Spam Musubi

Spam is considered to some to be a lesser food product, one reserved only for the leanest of times, but that opinion is not held in Hawaii.  Hawaiians have made an art of using Spam in their cuisine, managing to make a mechanically separated, pressed, and canned meat product legitimately delicious.  We knew once we decided that Hawaiian food was in the World Cup of Food competition that we had to make something out of Spam.

The Hormel Corporation unveiled Spam in 1937, and the product was quick to take hold throughout the United States and it territories.  World War II rationing led to Spam becoming a primary source of meat for a lot of people, especially those in hard-to-reach places like Hawaii.  In much of the mainland, Spam has waned in popularity to the point of becoming punch line fodder.  In Hawaii, though, Spam has been held in high regard since it was introduced, and today no state consumes more Spam per capita than The Aloha State.

Spam also has gained the unfortunate association with unwanted junk email.  “Spam” was first used as a technological term in the 1980s, when posters to electronic message boards (in those early days accessed by direct-dialing a host modem via the user’s own dial-up modem) would drown out other messages by posting the word “Spam” over and over again.  The word was chosen as a nod to a 1970s Monty Python sketch in which a restaurant features Spam in every menu item and dialogue is frequently drowned out by a chorus of Vikings repeating the word “Spam” in its songs.  It’s exactly as funny as it sounds:

Spam musubi (recipe follows) is probably Hawaii’s most prevalent preparation of Spam, available at any potluck and even as a convenience food at gas stations.  Slices of still-hot fried Spam are artfully laid atop planks of sushi rice, then tied like a bundle with a strap of the Japanese dried seaweed nori.  The Japanese-Hawaiians deserve most of the credit for its invention; the resemblance of Spam musubi to nigiri (sashimi slices atop football-shaped plugs of sushi rice) is undeniable.   Some cooks sandwich the Spam between two rice layers, others use just one.  Some use a wide strip of nori to wrap the entire musubi, others use a narrow strip. Every Hawaiian household no doubt has its own opinion on what makes proper Spam musubi, so we have used our sensibilities and preferences to create our own.

Spam musubi

adapted from Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook (Amazon affiliate link) by Ann Kondo Corum and Serious Eats


For the rice:

  • 3 cups Calrose rice
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp sugar

For the musubi:

  • 1 can Spam (accept no imitations)
  • a few sheets nori (Japanese dried seaweed sheets, available cheaply at Asian markets)

For starters we needed decent sushi rice on which to build our Spam musubi.  In Japan, chefs begin as apprentices, spending the first couple years of their careers devoted only to the mastery of sushi rice.  We don’t have that kind of time, so we took shortcuts.  The recipe from  Hawaii’s Spam Cookbook seemed fine and is likely similar to what a Hawaiian cook would do, so we used it.  What a Hawaiian cook would NEVER do (that we don’t think twice about) is cook rice in a saucepan on the stove.  No Hawaiian household is without a rice cooker and a decent model can be had brand new for about fifteen dollars or so.  In our small kitchen, the space that a rice cooker would occupy is much more valuable than its utility in making rice, so we are going without for now.  In other words, we are willfully preparing the rice incorrectly.

Calrose is a pretty good choice for sushi rice (and makes a decent risotto as well, and for cheap!).  It’s very starchy so even after aggressive washing before cooking it still sticks together very well, and its short, stubby grains are the ideal shape.  Hawaiians swear by it and use either it or plain long-grain white rice depending on the application.

Speaking of washing, we needed to gather what we needed to cook our rice, starting with the rice, a large mixing bowl, and a strainer:


Three cups of Calrose rice were covered with ample water in the bowl:

Before mixing or agitating in any way the excess starch had already completely clouded the water.

Using a clean hand, the rice was mixed and swished around to remove as much starch as possible:


Then the starchy water was discarded carefully over a strainer:


It is unnecessary to pour out all the water.  Instead, we left a little behind once a few grains of rice began to fall from the bowl into the strainer.  Wet rice is a little difficult to pour out of a metal strainer, which was there to catch the few grains that did end up falling.

Once rid of as much of the starchy water as could be removed, the process was repeated with fresh water four more times.  Each successive washing left the water clearer and clearer, and by the sixth and final washing it wasn’t cloudy at all:


This time, the rice was poured into the strainer and left to drain in the sink for a few minutes while we worked on other tasks:


After draining for about six minutes or so, the rice was covered with three cups of water in a saucepan and set over medium heat to come to a simmer:


Once simmering:


…the rice was covered and the heat was turned down to the lowest setting.  The rice was left to steam for twenty minutes.  Meanwhile, we prepared the seasoning.  The rice vinegar, sugar, and a teaspoon of salt were warmed over medium heat in a saucepan just long enough for the sugar to fully dissolve, about two or three minutes.  The vinegar-sugar mixture was immediately taken off the heat and poured into a bowl to cool:


Once cooked, the rice was spread out in a large casserole pan to cool:


The rice was covered with a clean kitchen towel to avoid over-drying (some drying is unavoidable).  After about ten minutes the rice had cooled a little but was still warm, which was the perfect time to add seasoning.  About half was drizzled over the rice, which was then gently but thoroughly stirred with a wooden spoon and covered again.  After about ten more minute the rest of the seasoning was applied in the same manner.  The seasoning is introduced in two steps to help ensure even distribution.

After the second time seasoning, the rice was covered and left too cool for another forty-five minutes or so:

Owl flour sack by Lopez Island, Washington artist Sally Moore.  Her Northwest-themed collection of kitchen towels is impressive.

While the rice was marinating in the seasoning we needed to get the nori ready.  Conveniently, the brand we purchased had perforated lines evenly spaced that were about the right width for us, so we used those lines a a guide:


…and cut eight strips:


Next we were ready for the Spam.  First we took a solemn moment to bask in the glory of the can:

Glorious, indeed.

After opening the can and removing its contents, we were treated to a visual feast:


The smell immediately after opening was almost exactly that of canned cat food, and in combination with the sound of a can being opened attracted one very interested onlooker:

World Cup of Food readers, meet Pigwidgeon, AKA Pigman, Mr. Piggles, Pigface, and The Piggest of Men.

Undeterred by the smell, we pressed on.   Most references we found advise against attempting to free-mold the musubi by hand, as the resulting rice plank will invariably be a crumbly mess.  One solution to this problem is an acrylic musubi press, such as the Kotobuki Spam Musubi Mold.  A thriftier option, and one that is always available so long as Spam is available, is to cut out the bottom of the Spam can:


Since the can bottom does not have a nice lip for the can opener to grab, this was a messy cut and needed some help to finish:


After some cutting, then prying, then more cutting and prying, the bottom of the can was removed:


This is absolutely not safe to use, but we weren’t going to take “absolutely not safe to use” for an answer, so the mold was rinsed with water (to prevent the rice from sticking too much and misshaping during removal) and packed about halfway with loose rice:


To shape into a firm brick, we pushed the rice down using the can bottom and a wooden spoon, making sure to press evenly in a few places on the can bottom:


To remove, we started with the main part of the can:


The bottom was gently peeled off, leaving a decently formed musubi brick behind:


Before proceeding with the remaining seven musubi, we needed to fry the Spam.  We heated one of our trusty cast-iron pans on medium-low (too high a heat and we risk overbrowning, since we knew we would likely be distracted shaping the rice into musubi).  Once the pan was hot, it surface was greased with a teaspoon or so of oil and the Spam slices were ready to fry:


After about three minutes their smell had improved dramatically and they were ready to be flipped:


Many Hawaiian cooks would be perfectly content with the Spam slices as-is, but others will add some soy sauce at this point.  We went with the soy sauce option, topping each piece with about a teaspoon or so:


The pan was shaken to allow the sauce to coat the underside as well, and the Spam slices were ready for the rice.  First a slab of rice was placed atop the center of a nori strip and topped with a slice of Spam:


The nori was pulled snugly over the musubi and the overlapping portion was sealed with a little water (which adhered to the nori just fine as long as not too much water was used):


After the first Spam musubi, the remaining seven went quickly:


Spam has a dubious reputation, at least where we come from, but it’s actually pretty good.  It’s flavor is like really salty ham, but the saltiness, while enhanced greatly by the soy sauce, is tempered considerably when paired with the rice.  Our leftovers went quickly, as Spam musubi are about the easiest possible thing to grab as a quick snack from the refrigerator.  If charged with a side dish for your next potluck or summer barbecue, we submit that Spam musubi merits your consideration.


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