Easy Hawaiian Musubi in Korea

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7Here is the article I wrote for my dining column in the Korea Herald’s “Expat Living” section back in October.  I’m going to catch up with those articles yet.  This version includes pictures.

Chuseok came and went over a month ago, and I’m sure that gift pack of Spam is still sitting in your kitchen.  You may even have a few cans left over from last year.  It’s perfect for a pot of budae jjigae, especially if you have some real bacon on hand and some good quality sausages.  Fry it up with eggs, and it’s a stellar breakfast.  There have to be other applications for canned ham.

Before you scoff at that last sentence, I thought canned ham was just one step away from dog food until a couple of years ago.  The canned ham industry began in America in the late 1920s and gained popularity during the Great Depression and World War II.  As America’s economy hit its post-war boom, the affection for cheap canned meat declined.  History tells us that the best recipes come from the creativity of scarce resources, and America didn’t have that problem after the war.  Asia picked up canned ham and loved it, as we see especially in Korea.

Hawaii became the world’s top consumer of Spam.  Considering that there isn’t much space on the islands for ranched livestock, it has become a well-respected source of protein, known as “Hawaiian steak.”

Hawaiians have found ways to make canned ham taste pretty darned good.  One of the most popular items is musubi, which is similar to Japanese nigiri sushi.  It makes a great snack and a decent packed lunch.  I was happy just making a dinner out of it.

Here’s the way I make it, which combines traditional Hawaiian techniques with a few variations.  Take some warm cooked rice and sprinkle it with salt and rice vinegar.  In classic sushi, the rice has sweetened vinegar.  In Hawaii, it’s usually salted rice.  Use a rice paddle to mix it by first slicing the rice and folding it over.  Taste it and adjust so that it is subtle and tangy.

Open the can of spiced ham and dump out the contents, keeping the can for use later.  The smaller size works best.  Slice the ham thickly, around one centimeter widths.  Fry them in a dry pan over medium high heat, being careful not to scorch them.

Prepare a teriyaki sauce by mixing one part soy sauce with one part mirim and a little sugar.  You can add this to the ham in the pan and let it reduce down to a syrupy consistency, or you can put it aside as a dipping sauce.

Take the ham off the heat.  Pack the rice into the Spam can, about two to three centimeters deep.  This is why the shorter cans work best.  The trick is to really pack it tightly with your fingers.  If too much rice sticks to your fingers, fill a bowl with water and dip your fingers in it.

Turn the can over and tap the rice out.  Get some dried kimbap-style seaweed (gim) and cut it to match the width of the rice.  You can use the can as a guide.  Place a slice of spiced ham on top of the packed rice and carefully wrap the seaweed around it.  You can rub some water or rice to seal the edges of the seaweed.

Eun Jeong's is farthest away. My mutilated first attempt is closer.

You can play with more variations by adding cheese, kimchi or a thin omelet.  The taste is not completely what you expect.  In fact, it’s a bit luxurious.  The crackle of the seaweed complements the crispy edge of the smoky fried Spam while the rice balances its intensity, and the vinegar gives a tangy zing.  It’s a way of introducing a little sunny Hawaii to your diet as the season turns colder.


Author: ZenKimchi

Joe McPherson founded ZenKimchi in 2004. He has been featured and sourced in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CNN, KBS, MBC, SBS, Le Figaro, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Harper’s Bazaar Korea, The Chosun Weekly, and other Korean and international media. He has consulted for "Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain," The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler, the PBS documentary series “Kimchi Chronicles,” and other projects in the UK, Canadan, and Australia featuring celebrity chefs such as Gizzi Erskine and Gary Mehigan. Mr. McPherson has written for multiple Korean and international publications, including SEOUL Magazine, JoongAng Daily, The Korea Herald, Newsweek Korea and wrote the feature article for U.S. National publication Plate magazine’s all-Korean food issue. He has acted as dining editor for 10 Magazine and was on the judging panel for Korea for the Miele Guide. He spoke at TEDx Seoul on Korean food globalization, at TED Worldwide Talent Search on the rise of Korean cuisine, and in New York City on Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. The company ZenKimchi International organizes food tours for tourists and corporations and acts as a media liaison for foreign and Korean media and local restaurants and producers.

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  • http://www.fatmanseoul.com fatman

    Fatman likes to eat it with a smear of ssamjang and maybe a slender slice of pineapple or kiwi . . . mmmm.

  • http://www.foodista.com Foodista

    Interesting, I’d like to invite you to take some time to drop by at Foodista. We have launched an online food and cooking encyclopedia ala wikipedia where you can contribute and share what you know about food and cooking techniques.

    We also have a small embeddable widget that will help you build traffic from Foodista-related pages. This will explain how the widget works. Thanks

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