What is the All American food? Obvious candidates include hamburgers, hot dogs, barbequed ribs, as well as a slew of regional options. For your consideration, though, I propose a different nominee: SPAM!
Spam is a canned and pre-cooked meat product first introduced by the Hormel Foods Corporation in 1937. While many assume that the name of the product is a portmanteau of the words “spiced” and “ham,” Hormel has from time to time denied this — though it has also, from time to time, seemed to adopt it as suggested by how it named other related products — describing it as a completely made-up name (perhaps for legal reasons) created by New York actor Kenneth Daigneau. One fact that supports this notion is the apparent absence of any spices in the list of ingredients on the products label. According to that label, Spam contains: “Chopped pork and ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, sodium nitrate.” The vagueness of the term “chopped pork” has given rise to a slew of more precise urban legends: pig lips, eyes, ears, tails and other unmentionables. The reality is more mundane: pork shoulder. Spam was created to utilize the pork shoulders that otherwise went to waste in Hormel’s plant.
Spam’s popularity is a creature of (a) brilliant and extensive marketing and (b) World War II. Cheap, portable and never needing refrigeration, Spam was the ideal product to ship to our allies under the Lend Lease program (mostly for civilian consumption in Britain and the USSR) and later into battle with our GIs. By the time the War was over Spam had become utterly ubiquitous on both sides of the pond – a fact lampooned by Monty Python in the famous comedy sketch in which two customers at a greasy spoon diner try to order breakfast from a menu that includes Spam in almost every dish….only to be drowned out by Vikings singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam” in the “background.” It is likely through that same sketch that the term spam became applicable by analogy to utterly ubiquitous unwanted junk e-mails that drown out desired e-mail traffic on the internet.
But what, pray-tell, do you do with the stuff? Well, you could poke it and watch it jiggle like jello. You could dole it out at Halloween instead of candy. In all seriousness, the most common thing to do with Spam seems to be frying it. Spam is often paired with eggs. Spam is so popular in Hawaii that it is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian Steak.” Hawaii has, essentially, raised Spam to an art form with yearly Spam Jam Festivals.
No dish sums up Hawaii’s love of Spam so well as Spam Musubi – which has already made an appearance on this blog (http://sdfoodtravel.com/asian-persuasion) — a slice of grilled or fried Spam paired with a block of rice, wrapped together with nori, loosely in the tradition of Japanese omusubi.
Outside of the United States, it is Koreans that show Spam the most love. Budae Jjigae – which literally translates as “Army Base Stew” and is a dead giveaway as to the origins of the dish – is a thick Korean soup traditional spicy soup which incorporates two items typically smuggled off of US Army bases during the Korean War – Spam and Vienna Sausages – into a rich and spicy soup including ramen noodles, flavored with gochujang (red chili paste) and kimchi.
But while Spam Musubi is, no doubt, a creative use of America’s favorite mystery meat it does not stray far from the common “fried” interpretation of the stuff. Budae Jjigae, on the other hand, buries the taste of the Spam itself in the stronger flavors of the Korean red chili paste and the kimchi.
What I wanted to do was a dish that celebrated the essence of Spam. Something that used its inherent saltiness and its meatiness, that was not simply the thing itself fried and did not hide the fundamental nature of the Spam but rather rejoiced in it. The solution: Spam and Le Puy Lentil Packets with Green Mango and Tomato Chutney. I diced the Spam small enough so that it functioned as a seasoning for the other ingredients in the phyllo packet filling. Green Mango and Tomato Chutney plays the dual roles of sauce and contrasting accent to the Spam packets. Spam may not be the obvious candidate for All-American food…but this dish makes the case.
Spam and Le Puy Lentil Packets with Green Mango and Tomato Chutney
For the Green Mango and Tomato Chutney
- 3 green (unripe) mangos
- 3 Roma tomatoes
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 habanero pepper, seeded and minced
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon ground tumeric
- ¼ teaspoon allepo or cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
- ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Kosher salt to taste
For the Spam and Le Puy Lentil Filling
- 1 cup Le Puy (French) lentils
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 can Spam Classic, cut in ¼ inch dice
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup frozen peas
For the Phyllo Packets
- Frozen phyllo dough sheets, thawed
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Make the Chutney. Peel the mangos using a carrot peeler and cut in ¼ inch dice. Crush the ginger and garlic using a heavy pan or the side of a knife and finely mince. Place the mangos, tomatoes, ginger, onion, minced garlic, gingerand oil in a heavy sauce pan over medium heat. Add the vinegar and half the minced habanero pepper and cook for fifteen minutes over low heat. Add the remaining ingredients (except the remaining habanero), stir to fully combine and bring back to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste the chutney and adjust for heat (adding more of the habanero to taste), sweetness, acidity and salt. The goal is a balance of all four. This recipe will yield more chutney than you will need for this dish but it keeps well in the refrigerator.
- Make the Le Puy Lentils. Place the lentils in a medium to large pot and add enough water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat and then turn the heat down to medium low so that it bubbles gently. Cook until the lentils are soft – about 20 to 30 minutes. Add more water as necessary to keep the lentils moist.
- Make the Packet Filling. Add the extra virgin olive oil to a large sauté pan over high heat and bring the oil up to the point of shimmering. Add the Spam and onions to the pan and sauté until they begin to caramelize; about two to three minutes. Add the garlic and the frozen peas and continue to sauté until the peas are cooked through; about another three minutes. Remove the mixture from the pan and cool in the refrigerator.
- Make the Packets. Preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Fold a sheet of the phyllo dough in half width-wise, place it on a cutting board and brush with olive oil. Place about one heaping tablespoon of the cooled filling on one side of the phyllow dough, one inch from the side and half way along that side. Fold the side of the phyllo over the filling and then fold the top back over the packet, then the bottom over the packet. At this point you should have the filling covered three times – once by the side then once each by the top and bottom. Take the enclosed filling side and role it several times over to keep encasing it in phyllo until you have a single two by three inch (approximately) packet. Brush the packet with extra virgin olive oil. Place the completed phyllo packets on a half hotel sheet that has been lightly oiled. Repeat until you run out of phyllo sheets, filling or both. Place the hotel sheet in the preheated oven and bake until the are lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
- Plate the Dish. Place about a teaspoon of Chutney on top of each of the Spam and Le Puy Lentil Packets.