Korea’s Lotte Mart chain is just Walmart with delusions of grandeur. It dreams the high life, with meticulously curated produce, tanks of live lobsters, hanbok-clad employees shilling holiday gift boxes, and fancy bakeries of baguettes and croissants.
But it can’t escape what it is—checkout carts crammed with cheap bras, pajama pants, discount razors, and bananas. And, of course, rice and kimchi, because Korea. But Lotte Mart reliably stocks peanut butter, so it’s pretty much our go to store.
It was two days to Seollal, aka Lunar New Year, aka THE family holiday in Korea after Chuseok. Lotte Mart’s aisles writhed with shoppers stocking up on presents. And they had plenty of options. There were gift boxes of high-end fruits ($100.00 for nine apples? Are they made of gold?), packs of fancy tuna (oh good! A six month supply!), and wrapped sets of shampoo and conditioner (because insulting someone’s personal hygiene through presents is fun!). But by far the most fascinating option was the spam.
Spam is something of an obsession in Korea. It’s a best selling Seollal present, and popular addition to several Korean dishes. Our Lotte Mart always has plenty of options. And as we perused the spam aisle on our way to the checkout, sudden curiosity overwhelmed good judgment.
“You ever had any?” Erin asked, fingering one of the cans with morbid fascination.
“No,” I replied.
“Let’s get some!” she said suddenly.
I blinked. “What? Why?”
“You know. Spam and eggs! Seollal breakfast! Koreans love it. Maybe we should try it!”
I gave Erin a long look. “Are you sure?”
She grinned, “Yes! For culture! And science!”
I shrugged. “Okay, what kind do you want? There’s classic, mild… uh, spam and sausage stew here. Is that… is that a spam and mayo rice bowl? Premade?”
“Classic,” Erin said. “Definitely classic.”
I grabbed a can. And since we were tired of being elbowed by ajummas, we headed home.
Fast forward two days, we stood in the kitchen staring at the unopened can. The coffee hadn’t even kicked in yet. It was Seollal morning, fresh and bright and beautiful. And now that it was down to it, I couldn’t help but feel a gastronomical terror.
“We sure we want to do this?” Erin asked.
“Yes,” I replied. I removed the plastic lid and frowned. “It’s like a soda can top.”
“Oh my God,” Erin whispered softly, eyes wide.
I pulled the ring. The can popped and hissed.
“It smells like cat food,” I said. “Oh, wow! That… that is a cat food smell!”
Erin was suddenly in the other room, peering cautiously through the doorway. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want it.”
“We’ve come too far to turn back now!” I shouted.
I upended the can. The meat-brick made a sucking sound, then slapped down onto the plate with a spatter of jelly. It was pale and strange, a distillation of wrongness.
“Are you okay?” Erin called from a hastily constructed blanket bunker in the other room.
“We can throw it away…”
“We paid $6.00 for this thing. I’m not just throwing it away!” I called.
Carefully, I sliced the ham-loaf into somewhat more manageable chunks, and then I slid them onto the frying pan. The air filled with a sizzling sound. The smell… well… imagine if you left ham in the summer sun. For days.
Erin had now moved her blanket fort to an open window, and she huddled with her shirt pulled up over her nose. I briefly considered joining her.
In a separate, untarnished pan, I prepared a batch of scrambled eggs. Then I laid the table for breakfast.
Erin, from deep inside her fort. “No.”
“It’ll get cold. That’s not going to make it better,” I said.
“Don’t care,” Erin’s muffled voice called. “Don’t wanna.”
“I understand,” I said. I speared a slice on my fork and held it up. “I’m going in!”
“No!” she half tumbled out of her fort, face full of worry and horror.
But it was too late. I took a bite. I chewed. I swallowed.
“It’s not as bad as it smells,” I said. “It’s super salty. Wow. It’s almost kind of… nice?” I did not sound at all sure.
Slowly, cautiously, Erin emerged from her bunker and took a chair. With a fork, she poked the charry meat chunk oozing on her plate. Then in one quick movement, she sliced off the smallest possible piece and popped it into her mouth.
“For science…” she muttered as she chewed. She looked like she was waiting for the spam to fart on her tongue. Then she just kind of shrugged. “You’re right. It’s not as bad as it smells.”
This was not exactly a ringing endorsement. But cultural exploration requires an open mind and an adventurous spirit. And the willingness to acquire a taste for something strange. It’s why kimchi is a thing.
But spam? With my blessing (and apologies), I think I’ll leave that to the Koreans.
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