Bento: a thin box, made of plastic or lacquered wood, divided into compartments which contain small separate dishes comprising a Japanese meal, esp lunch.

Okazuya-ya: Okazu means side dish - 'Ya' means shop. Casual storefront restaurants serving carry-out foods that reflect the ethnic mix of the Islands of Hawaii.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Spam Musubi -- A History

Photo from

I’m typing this on an airplane back from Indonesia. I grew up in Hawaii. If you know me, you already knew that – evidently I talk about it all the time. Hawaii is many things to many people. It’s a luau. It’s a tacky shirt. It’s a tourist trap. It’s not American – It’s Japanese or Asian. It’s a historic monument. It’s an eden both in modernity and natural. For many people, it is one or more of many things. For me, it was and is home, at heart, for many a reason, but namely because I spent my formative years walking its beaches, enjoying its many cultures, and eating its cuisine.

I was in Indonesia this past week, and the client I was with asked an honest question that I’ve been asked many times, “What is Hawaiian Cuisine?” IT is always difficult to answer this question with honesty or precision, because there are so many ways to describe our food (such a perplexing thought is common to many countries). Hawaii is the essence of the modern melting pot. In brief, through a variety of events – including its recognition as a sovereign kingdom for much of the 17th through 20th centuries and the sugar cane and pineapple plantations going hundreds of years back – Hawaii’s culture and, thus, its food has become a mix of a variety of peoples. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Indonesian, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Filipino, British, American, Brazilian, Puerto Rican, New Zealander, Australian and many came to Hawaii’s shores for opportunity or an escape from whatever trappings they came from.

There are so many Californians living in Hawaii I can hardly stand it but, hey, if I was from California, I’d want to leave too.

Anyway, I digress. So the mixing cultures gave rise to a mixing of foods. Often, the plantation farmers would have so many varieties of foods to share that a wonderful mixture of meats, rice, sauces and salsas, and methods of cooking resulted in what is the abstruse ‘Hawaiian Cuisine’ of 2010 and my upbringing. One of those dishes was the easily portable ‘Musubi’ or 'Onigiri' – a Japanese ball of rice, usually with a seed or other ingredient inside, wrapped in seaweed. This Japanese dish has no counterpart in traditional American cooking – a perfect condiment of anything and also could be eaten on its own as a light meal.

The original Onigiri, as prepared by Fran

Over time, during the World Wars especially World War II, meat was difficult to come by in the United States and the American soldiers based in and around Honolulu would need something as a simple protein base. Thus came Spam – oh the lovely luncheon meat now global phenomenon, not to mention, unwanted email. This ubiquitous meat spread through Hawaii like an infectious smile. Meat, good. Simple farmers and peoples were OK with it. Over time, some clever guy said to himself, “lets take a musubi, and add Spam!” Thus, the birth of the Spam Musubi.

A little Terriyaki Sauce, a little Mirin (rice wine based rice additive, used in Sushis and many cuisines in Japanese cooking), a bit of Furikake (shredded nori seaweed and sesame seeds) in the rice, mix it up, shape it into a rectangular cube of rice, top it with Spam sautéed in Terriyaki, garlic or other sauces, and wrap it all up in Seaweed. There you have it! The Hot Dog of Hawaii!

You can find them everywhere in Hawaii, and even in the mainland USA – Hawaiian BBQ chain L&L has them (although they aren’t the best tasting spam musubis out there). I usually pick one up topped with a Tamago Egg at the Okazuya in Haleiwa town, Gulicks, Mitsu-Ken or 7-11. I also make them myself at home, with Francheska. She loves them, and so does her family which is really exciting to me.

Even Obama likes them.


Jacque said...

Andrew! I just stumbled upon your blog... You're a great writer! I have a suggestion for your next post - the bean and cheese taco. I tell ya, don't knock it till you try it!

AK Works said...

Took a trip to Maui. Love Hawaii now. So so hooked. Can't wait to go back. And speaking of musubi and, LOVE the musubi from the ABC stores and Foodland - so easy to buy and carry. And the poke? fuh-get-about-it. divine! Love it.

And the plate lunches and laulau. yum. love the laulau. even the loco moco is interesting, tho a bit pedestrian for me.

can't wait to go back to hawaii!