As the Lunar New Year rolls in, South Koreans are rushing to stores to get their hands on special edition Spam gift set. Yes, Spam.
The gelatinous pink meat is often shunned to the back of cupboards in the United States, but a can of spam in the Asian nation is a precious holiday gift.
“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.
Since the Korean War, when food was scarce and rations like Spam, which were smuggled out of US army bases, were highly prized, South Korea has become the largest consumer of the canned good outside the US.
Kim Jong-sik, 79, a South Korean veteran said Spam was a “luxury” in those days, but demand still remains strong today.
“PX food was the only way you could get meat,” Kim said. “Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well-connected.”
Spam has evolved into a culinary gem in South Korea. Special restaurants mix Spam with kimchi, making a dish called budaejjigae, or “military stew.” It has also become a staple in breakfast tables across South Korea, while pregnant Korean women say they often find themselves craving it.
During the holidays, local producer CJ Cheil Jedang introduce Spam gift boxes which could be given as presents. Sales of gift boxes have buoyed Spam’s sales in South Korea to nearly 20,000 tons, worth $235 million, last year.
“Anyone who gets a Spam gift set gets a warm feeling in their heart,” Spam spokesman Shin Hyo Eun said.
Although not all South Koreans would choose the canned meat over fresh meat, Spam is here to stay.
“Spam maintains a mythical aura on the Korean market for reasons that escape many,” said 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 US military, it enjoyed an association with prosperity and nutritiousness during an earlier era.”
By Maesie Bertumen
Image: Seoulful Adventures/Flickr