Spam is no junk meat - it's fit for a gift in South Korea

Spam gift boxes displayed at a supermarket in Seoul, on Sept 21, 2018.
Spam gift boxes displayed at a supermarket in Seoul, on Sept 21, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

JINCHEON, SOUTH KOREA (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - From the front lines of war to a staple of institutional catering, Spam is rarely seen as a gourmet ingredient - but the canned pink meat holds a unique position in South Korea as a top-selling holiday gift.

Ahead of the Chuseok harvest festival which started yesterday - one of Korea's biggest celebrations and an occasion for mass family gatherings - presentation wooden boxes of the blue-and-yellow tins, nestled in packing straw, line the shelves of both major retailers and local convenience stores.

An upmarket black-label pack with six cans of Spam and two bottles of Andalusian olive oil costs over 90,000 won (S$110), but the most popular version is a nine-tin set at 30,000 won.

Office worker Lee Yoon-ho bought five to give acquaintances, calling it "the most universal" present. "It's affordable and everyone likes it," he said. "All South Koreans like Spam."

Spam gift boxes worth a total of around 213 billion won were sold in South Korea last year - six times as much as in 2008, when the figure was first recorded. A spokesman for supermarket giant Homeplus said the tinned meat hampers ranked second, third and fourth in its top-selling products last Chuseok.

"In Western countries, Spam is considered a cheap substitute to fresh meat and people nowadays tend to view it fairly negatively as they associate it with ration packs and poor quality meat," Ms Da-hae West, author of the English-language cookbook Eat Korean, told AFP. "Because Spam is both salty and high in fat, it complements the spicy, tangy elements of Korean food very well - particularly kimchi, as the flavours balance each other out," she said.

Spam was introduced to the peninsula by the United States army in the 1950s, when civilian food supplies were running low - with meat scarce - during the Korean War.

South Korea is the second-biggest consumer of Spam after the US, according to US conglomerate Hormel Foods.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2018, with the headline 'Spam is no junk meat - it's fit for a gift in S. Korea'. Subscribe