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How The Amazing Spam Musubi Blends Asian And U.S. Cultures Into A Delicious, Inexpensive Snack

Matthew James Berrafato holding Spam musubi snacks. Credit Antoinette Lee Toscano

(Note: This article refers to “Matthew James Berrafato” because he has an uncle, Matthew Berrafato, who is also a photographer.)

Irish-Italian-American photographer and all-around outdoorsman Matthew James Berrafato, a Third Culture Adult (TCA), missed the Hawaiian islands he had grown to love while living and working there for four years. 

During the COVID lockdown, while staring at a case of Spam and wondering how to create a delicious meal with it, Berrafato remembered his Hawaiian third culture. He recalled how the Hawaiians used Spam lunch meat to cook Spam Musubi during a period of food insecurity on the islands to create a portable, inexpensive Hawaiian delicacy. 

Today, Berrafato calls Spam Musubi his favorite backcountry meal on the go.

Cans of flavored and plain spam on a store shelf
Cans of flavored and plain spam on a store shelf. (Photo credit: Hormel Foods Corp.)

Spam is considered a mystery meat in U.S. culture. Spam consists of only six primarily natural ingredients — pork with ham meat added, counted as a single ingredient, plus salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite. The sodium nitrate gives the unrefrigerated meat a best-by date of three years.

A BRIEF HISTORY

The word “Spam” is a portmanteau for spiced ham. The pork product was created by Hormel Foods Corp., a U.S. food processing company founded in Austin, Minn., in 1891 by George A. Hormel.

During World War II, 150 million pounds of Spam was bought, shipped and served to the U.S. military, according to “American in WWII” magazine.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the U.S. military fought its way to the Pacific islands of Guam, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, bringing Spam with it. For this reason and others, Spam has made its way into Asian cuisine throughout these regions, including the 50th U.S. state — Hawaii, in the central Pacific Ocean.

When there’s a civil emergency, people flock to the supermarkets to hoard toilet paper and Spam. It’s one of those things. During the holidays, there (were) fights over those Black Friday Spam specials. People go crazy over Spam.

Top Chef finalist Sheldon Simeon of the Tin Roof restaurant in Maui, Hawai’i.

On some islands in the Pacific Ocean — including Hawaii — Spam became necessary for survival for many residents due to food rationing and restrictions during the war.

In addition to photography and adventure sports like fishing, ice fishing, whitewater kayaking, hiking and camping, Berrafato loves food.

photo of organic seaweed, spam, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, and sticky rice, ingredients for making a quick Spam musubi
Seaweed, Spam, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, and sticky rice. Ingredients for making a quick Spam musubi.

A QUICK MEAL

“I’m careful about what I eat. Sometimes I’ll spend ten minutes looking for the perfect lime, even if it’s one small ingredient in a grilling and smoked meats recipe. I grow many of the vegetables that I cook on the grill from scratch at home and in the backcountry,” Berrafato says. “I enjoy the slow process of smoking and grilling meats, vegetables, and sides on a classic Weber Kettle grill at home because I love barbeque. But I don’t have hours to slow-cook an elaborate meal when I’m kayaking class-four rapids or hiking into the backcountry to photograph a scenic location all day.”

Berrafato hosts “Smokin’ with Matt” in his spare time on AdventureTV on the XOTV.me platform. Through his series, Berrafato is helping backyard meat grillers and smokers “level up their barbecue game” from scratch-made recipes with step-by-step video instructions. 

When I cook, I like to blend classic American meals with ethnic spices from the cultures that I’ve grown to love, like my Korean barbeque ribs recipe.

Matthew James Berrafato

“During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, I saw social media posts of single men over 40 and Millennials who talked about not knowing how to cook and their dependence on restaurant takeout, which wasn’t available to them. And I noticed their reliance on microwaveable meals and processed foods with very little nutritional value and decided to share my love of home-cooked meals,” Berrafato says.

Photo of Spam musubi snacks on a Boulder in the backcountry. Credit Matthew James Berrafato
Spam musubi snacks in the backcountry. (Photo courtesy Matthew James Berrafato)

However, Berrafato found that Spam Musubi (pronounced Moo-Sue-Bee) is a great, naturally gluten-free source of protein and carbohydrates meal or snack to take on a backcountry adventure. He makes Spam Musubi the day before, stores it in a Hot Bento, self-heating bento lunchbox, and enjoys a hot meal on a frozen lake while ice fishing. 

HOT AND COLD SPAM MUSUBI

Berrafato says you can also eat Musubi cold. And Spam musubi recipes span from basic and quick to more elaborate gourmet snacks.

Barbara Funamura, a Japanese-American woman born in 1938 in Lihue, Kauai County, Hawaii, U.S.A., is credited with inventing Spam musubi. Spam Musubi (rice ball) is a slice of grilled or pan-fried Spam on top of a triangle of rice, wrapped together with sheets of nori seaweed. Funamura later used a rectangular-shaped plastic box which was the perfect size for the sliced canned ham. And the rectangular sandwich became the familiar shape that Berrafato came to love.

One cannot help but think that Funamura, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 78, who has a degree in food sciences from Colorado State University, might love the idea of a cross-cultural Coloradan, Matthew James Berrafato, sharing her recipe and culture with the Colorado outdoor community.

To read more about how to get started in adventure sports like Matthew James Berrafato, check out the article on “How to Learn the Cross-Cultural Sport of Ice Fishing for Beginners.”

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