Genevieve Fuji Johnson

The Comfort of Spam… The Tasty Kind

I am obsessed with Spam. Maybe it’s an emotional response to difficult times, a reach for something comforting, nostalgic, and tasty.

Ojiichan used to fry it up in soya sauce and sugar, and serve it with greasy eggs, easy-over, on a bowl of rice.

Was he introduced to Spam while a prisoner of war during WWII? It’s not as well known as the history of the Japanese-Canadian and American internments, but many Canadian and American citizens of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in actual POW camps. For 4 years, Ojiichan and about 800 other Japanese-Canadian men were imprisoned at Angler, Ontario. There were barbed-wire fences. The guards had guns, and the prisoners wore jumpsuits with a large red bullseye on the back. Their alleged crime? Protesting the separate internment of Japanese-Canadian men from women and kids. So, they were sent off to prison camps, while their families were sent off to internment camps. Yet, not a single charge of disloyalty was laid against the 22,000 incarcerated Japanese Canadians.

Although during the war the US government sent canned meat to incarceration camps in that country Ojiichan developed his taste for Spam during the post-war American occupation of Japan. After the war, the Canadian government gave the Japanese-Canadians two options for resettlement: Move east of the Rockies or “return” to Japan. Many Canadian-born Japanese-Canadians had never been to Japan.

Japan had been obliterated during the war. Ojiichan was lucky to find a job in Osaka and was able to support his now reunited family. Instead of shame, bitterness, or anger, he leaned with pride into the work of handyman, driver, then cook for US military officers of the occupation forces. He learned to mix American cocktails, to roast chicken, and bake lemon meringue pie. Decades later, all of us grandkids would delight in his dinners combining both American and Japanese home cooking.

The US military was responsible for the spread of Spam to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and of course the Hawaiian Islands. “Wherever American troops went, Spam followed,” says academic Robert Ku in a 2019 Time Magazine article. The place of Spam in Asian-diasporic cuisine since the mid-twentieth century may be quirky for some, but it’s meaningful for many. “It’s tinged with a certain amount of sadness,” states Sohui Kim, the owner and chef of Insa.

Through his cooking, Ojiichan reached across generational differences, and surely across his sadness and pain, to bring us together as a family. He showed us how to keep moving forward.

Love for an elder – love for anyone – is not for everything about them. It’s for a few of their core characteristics, like honesty, generosity, and sense of humor. It’s for something rooted in who they are, but also for something more amorphous. Perhaps a feeling of their acceptance of you, their tenderness toward you, and ultimately the comfort they provide you. Love for elders is often for how they’ve survived hardship, and how they came out the other side, picked-up, and carried on.

Spam reminds me of warfare, the unfairness of it, and the horror of it. It also reminds me of love and resilience. It is a line to Ojiichan, wherever he is now. It connects me to my Japanese-Canadian heritage. It’s a cultural bridge shared in complex ways with friends of Korean, Filipino, and Hawaiian ancestry. And it’s pretty tasty.

Here’s my omusubi recipe:


2 cups short-grain rice (you don’t need sushi rice; Kokuho is perfect).

1 can of Spam

Some soya sauce, sake or white wine, and brown sugar

3 sheets of Japanese nori

Some Kewpie mayo


-Cook 2 cups of short-grain rice. Make sure your rice is washed pretty well. It’s better if your rinsing water does not run totally clear of the starch; keep it just a little starchy. Be a bit more generous with the cooking water than when you’re making rice as a side dish. You want the cooked rice to be moist. Some rice-cooker inserts have a specific water measuring line for making rice for sushi. If you don’t have a rice cooker, and you need me to be more specific with the water measurement, I cannot help you. For many of us raised on rice, you just know how much water you need. Anyway, once cooked, let the rice cool off.

-Open your can of Spam. Over a chopping board, turn the can upside down and tap the bottom. By design, the Spam slides out in one piece. Do not be tempted to eat the Spam raw. You will regret it; you will never want to look at Spam again.

-On the chopping board, turn the Spam onto its side, and prepare to slice Japanese style. Start by slicing it in half, then slice those halves into halves, then those halves into halves. You’ll end up with 8 equally proportioned slices of Spam. This incidentally is how to properly slice sushi rolls.

-In a saucepan, simmer then reduce the Japanese soya sauce, sake/white wine, and brown sugar, mixed to taste. Let cool, then marinate the Spam slices in it.

-Once reasonably cooled off, using a wet o-shamoji, scoop the rice into a wide and shallow mixing bowl. Start breaking up the clumps a little bit, so that the rice has an even consistency.

-Make sure your hands are clean. “Wash your hands!” – I can still hear my Ojiichan’s gruff fisherman’s voice. Put some lukewarm water in a small bowl and dip one washed hand at a time into it.

-Contrary to most musubi recipes, you do not need a mold to shape the rice. Just take a good look at the shape of your Spam slices; then grab a large fist-full of rice. Turn your fist over and open your fingers. Keep the rice in that palm and, with the other hand, start shaping the rice into the length and width of your Spam slices. Because your hands are wet, the rice shouldn’t be sticking to them. The rice pad – although musubi is an onigiri, it’s more of a pad then a ball – should be a bit thicker than the Spam slice itself but the same shape length- and widthwise. Press the other palm down on it to ensure that it’s fairly firm; also press the edges of the ends of the rice pad to ensure that they too are firm. Carefully lay the nicely shaped rice pad down on a clean flat surface. Repeat 7 times. Be sure to rinse your hands in the little bowl of water before starting to shape the next rice pad.

-Heat a skillet with sesame oil. The temperature should be medium high. Add the Spam slices. Cook for about 2-3 minutes each side. Once cooked, lay the slices of a few pieces of paper towel, as if they were bacon. Glaze them with the remaining soya sauce, sugar, and sake/wine mixture. Let them cool.

-Take a sheet of nori and cut widthwise into thirds. Repeat with two more sheets of nori. Eat 1 nori strip. Now you have 8.

-Take 1 nori strip and lay it widthwise across your now dry palm. Take a rice pad and lay it, lengthwise, onto the nori strip.

-Squirt some Kewpie mayo onto the rice pad.

-Lay a Spam slice lengthwise, glazed side down onto the rice pad. Wrap the nori quite firmly over the Spam and back under the rice pad. Use a single grain of cooked rice to glue the nori to itself on the bottom of the musubi. Ensuring that the nori sticks to itself on the underside of the musubi is a critical step. It ensures that your musubi is pretty to look at, with the seam hidden from sight.

Enjoy with a little extra soya sauce or mayo. And, here’s hoping for peace and love everywhere.

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