Taste of Okinawa: SPAM a key ingredient to daily life on island
Taste of Okinawa: SPAM a key ingredient to daily life on island
Spam, Spam, Spam – lovely Spam!
To most, it’s an old Monty Python skit. But if you’re on Okinawa, it’s a way of life.
Okinawan’s consume an estimated 7.2 million cans of canned pork annually, more than one can for each person per week. It is an indispensable ingredient in popular local dishes such as “po-oku tamago” (pork and eggs) and “goya chanpuru” (bittermelon stir fry), and can be found in virtually every home or restaurant pantry on island.
“In Okinawa, (canned) pork is a kind of soul food,” says Asuka Ganeko of Tulip Food Company, Japan, one of the island’s leading sellers of canned pork. “It is used in virtually everything that’s cooked, not only for goya chanpuru. It is put in miso soup or cooked as stir-fried vegetables, sandwiches, rice balls, noodles and rolled sushi.”
Ganeko, who says she eats canned pork at least once or twice a day, says that although it’s precooked, locals almost never eat it without grilling, broiling or frying it first. Okinawans can be as particular about how to fry canned pork, as Americans are about how to cook their steaks.
“Every person and every family has their own way of cooking (canned) pork,” says Ganeko. “Some like it sliced thick, while others like it sliced thin and cooked well, like bacon. Sometimes, how thick it should be sliced and how to cook it can even lead to quarreling.”
As the mainstay of local comfort foods, most restaurants could not do business without it.
“Any decent restaurant in Okinawa serves good pork and eggs,” says Ganeko. “We Okinawan’s often wonder why it is so much more delicious at restaurants than when we cook them at home.”
It’s no mystery, however, how this canned delicacy became so popular.
“Spam” proper is the precooked canned pork product made by Hormel Foods Corporation in 1937 that was a well-known military staple food in World War II when it came into wide use in soldiers’ C-rations. Since fresh meat was difficult to get to the soldiers on the front, World War II saw the largest use of Spam when troops ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This signature U.S. military dish of yesteryear has since won the hearts and minds – and taste buds – of select consumers throughout the Pacific. And it is no surprise it has a strong foothold on Okinawa, where locals have long boasted they, “eat every part of the pig except its squeal.” According the canned pork labels, this still holds true today.
“Okinawans have a long tradition of eating pork,” says Masaki Akamine, an Okinawa native who works for the meat wholesaler, Tomimura Shoji. “But during the war meat was scarce on the island, making it hard to obtain until the U.S. military brought Spam to Okinawa in its rations and introduced their overstock into the local market.”
After the war, American GIs would give out free Spam to families during tough times, in part, as a way to win local trust. Today, it’s a household name.
“Hormel Foods Corporation produces about 200 million Spam cans a year,” said Chizuru Yukita, the company’s Japan country manager. “While half of our products are consumed in the continental U.S., the other half is exported overseas, mostly in the Pacific to places like Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, South Korea and Okinawa where U.S. military installations are, or used to be.
Most Americans may associate the name “Spam” with all canned pork, but it is actually only a Hormel trademark. On Okinawa where more than one maker is vying for the hearts and stomachs of locals, “We usually call this canned food “po-oku,” or pork, regardless of the brand,” says Akamine.
In fact, Okinawa is one of the largest markets in the world for Danish canned pork maker, Tulip, which has been challenging Spam’s market dominance on island for decades. Together, the two makers now hog about 80 percent of the Okinawa market. Others competing for a slice of the pork loaf, include Midland from Denmark; Windmill and Dutch Colony, out of Holland; and China’s Meirin. Even a local meat processor, Oh! Pork, has a hoof in the game.
Canned pork producers not only vie for a share of local demand, they take that demand very seriously. Consider that a regular 12-ounce can of pork typically goes for about 300 yen ($3) at a supper market on Okinawa, compared to 360-400 yen in mainland Japan markets such as Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. Why?
“Okinawans would never pay that kind of price for this stuff,” says Akamine, adding that stiff competition between powerhouses Hormel and Tulip also help keep the price down.
Retailers may even sell it below cost as a part of their promotion strategies, “because Spam is a really eye-catching, high-value product for Okinawans that can attract more shoppers when the price is exceptionally low,” says Yukita.
Even without a deep discount, however, investing in a plate of local chanpuru stir-fry is sure to produce a high yield – as well as a genuine taste of Okinawa.
Last year, Okinawa imported 6,200 tons of canned pork – 3,600 tons from Denmark and 2,500 from the United States, according to national customs data. It’s perhaps the latest score in an ongoing canned-pork war between U.S. Spam maker Hormel Foods Corporation and Danish rival Tulip Food Company.
Combined, the two companies dominate more than 80 percent of canned pork retail sales in Okinawa, according to Hiroki Akamine, a spokesperson for canned meat wholesaler, Tomimura Shoji. On average, the two companies have more or less equal shares of the Okinawa market, but that wasn’t always the case.
“It used to be that Tulip was responsible for more than 60 percent of all retail sales (of canned pork),” said Hormel’s Japan country manager, Chizuru Yukita. “However, Spam quickly increased its market share to compete against Tulip.”
(Interestingly, while Spam is still very popular in the U.S., Tulip and other European brands sold in Okinawa are not sold in their own countries today. They are produced for export only.)
Contrary to Spams longstanding wartime history on Okinawa, it wasn’t actually until 1976 that Hormel began selling the product in Japan. Prior to then, Spam was mainly distributed courtesy of the U.S. military.
Despite local love for the prized brand-name product, then up-and-comer Tulip stole the show due, at least in part, to a fixed exchange rate of 360 yen to the U.S. dollar. It made the price of a can of Spam in the 1960s more than 1,000 yen – way too expensive for daily consumption.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, Okinawans bought only Tulip,” said Tulip Food Company, Japan’s Asuka Ganeko. “Even when Spam did come onto the market, we couldn’t afford it.”
It should come as no surprise that the spokesperson for rival Spam has a different spin on this history.
“In those days, Okinawans considered Spam to be a high-end, imported food,” Yukita said. “It was primarily ‘Spam Classic,’ which contains a lot of salt. To this day, there are Okinawans from this era that still prefer Spam Classic to the (more popular) low sodium Spam.”
Tulip and other European or Canadian brands continued to dominate the market until the 80s, when the tables were turned on currency exchange rates. The yen strengthened significantly against the dollar, while the euro remained comparatively strong.
“American products like Spam became more affordable,” Akamine said.
There is, however, a good reason why Tulip has continued to hold its own against Spam, Ganeko said.
“Okinawans traditionally prefer a mild less salty taste,” Ganeko said. “Spam in those days was really salty. So, Okinawans may have chosen less expensive and less salty Tulip pork.”
Not to be outdone, Hormel introduced its Spam “Usushio” (lightly-salted) – with 20 percent less sodium than original Spam – in 1996. Tailored to local tastes, the product is exclusive to Okinawa.
“We have done a lot of promotions to gain our market share, such as TV commercials with our mascot ‘Spammy-kun,’ and a limited edition 75th anniversary can with a label featuring traditional Okinawan dancers as well as a Spam recipe contest,” Yukita said.
For its part, Tulip countered with new products, such as a plastic container and an even “lighter” tasting version of its product – with 25 percent less salt.
“Cans sometimes hurt fingers; we introduced the plastic container in 2010 for the first time in history. It has been commended by a lot of Okinawans as an epoch-making event,” Ganeko said. “When we started selling (lighter-tasting pork) last year, three months’ worth of stock sold out within a month. I again saw how Okinawans prefer a mild taste and less sodium.”
There seems to be no significant difference in the retail prices of the two major brands, and judging from their near equal market shares in recent decades, Okinawans don’t seem to favor one over the other. Nonetheless, there would appear to be no end in sight for Okinawa’s canned-pork war.
Okinawa variations on Spam and Tulip
While Hormel Foods Corporation, Japan has a lineup of six Spam products it sells on Okinawa, Tulip distributes five tailored to local tastes. Spam “Usushio” (lightly-salted) and Pork Luncheon Meat (less sodium) are their respective rival variations which are both made exclusively for Okinawa.
❶ Spam Usushio (lightly-solted)– 20 percent less sodium and 30 percent less fat
❷ Spam Classic – original flavor
❸ Spam Less-Sodium – 20 percent less sodium
❹ Spam Garlic
❺ Spam Hot & Spicy – with Tabasco flavor
❻ Spam Turkey – with white lean turkey
❶ Pork Luncheon Meat (slightly-salted) in can – main product
❷ Pork Luncheon Meat (slightly-salted) in plastic container
❸ Pork Luncheon Meat 1810 gram - 5 times large of regular can
❹ Bacon Lunch – free corn starch
❺ Pork Luncheon Meat (less sodium) – 25 percent less sodium than the “slightly-salted
In Okinawa, there is a TV commercial featuring the mascot Spammy-kun. In the Commercial, the stuffed toy mascot dances comically while saying “cook me anyway you like - stewed, stir-fried and pan broiled - whatever you like.
Originally, this mascot was a piglet. There have been several variations of the mascot for Hormel products, depending on the time and region.
Today, in Okinawa and mainland Japan, it’s Spammy-kun’s turn in the limelight.
WHAT'S IN A CAN?
Although Spam is just a food product, it is also a part of modern Okinawan culture, not unlike the Okinawa sanshin (three-stringed guitar). The same is true of the package.
The empty cans are often used as pen stands or boxes for accessories.
Hormel released the 75th anniversary can for less sodium Spam in 2012. The label features a traditional Okinawan EISA dancer. The festive design of the blue label is designed to appeal to local diehard Spam fans.
Both the Spam and rival Tulip brand names are very popular with Okinawans, they use the logos in designs for T-shirts, jackets and key-chains.
“Kankara sanshin,” an Okinawan guitar-like instrument madewith an empty can, is often made with Spam can on Okinawa. What could be called “Spamkara” are often used in schools on island.
Spam meets European elegance on Okinawa
In 2012, the U.S. Consul General in Okinawa hosted a luncheon reception to select the winner of the V5 (five vegetables) and Spam recipe contest.
The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office and Hormel supported the recipe contest, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Spam family of products and featured Trade Office’s “V5” U.S. vegetable campaign. The V5 campaign promotes fresh U.S. romaine lettuce, celery, and broccoli, showcasing these products in new, tasty combinations.
The unique contest required chefs to use Spam along with fresh U.S. romaine lettuce, celery and broccoli in a newly created dish. Leading chefs from nine of Okinawa’s top hotels participated in the recipe contest, submitting 38 recipes. The seven finalists served their creations at a reception, where the guests tasted the dishes and voted on their favorites to be selected the winners.
Chef Yasuharu Kuniyoshi of the Naha Terrace Hotel created the Grand Prize-winning dish, Spam Pressé Mosaic.
American vegetable and Spam Mille-Feuilles, the dish submitted by Chef Haruka Toguchi of the Loisir Hotel and Spa Tower Naha, won second prize.
Chef Chosei Taira of the Okinawa Harborview Hotel Crowne Plaza came in third place for his Un Plate de la Surprise.
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