Spam receives respect -- abroad

Canned meat is luxury item in S. Korea


SEOUL, South Korea -- Stroll into an expensive department store and walk straight past the $180 watermelon with a ribbon twirled just so around its stem. Don't bother with the tea in a butterfly-shaped tin for $153, or with the gift boxes of Belgian chocolates or French cheeses.

If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste, you might try Spam. The luncheon meat might be the subject of satire back at home in the United States, but in South Korea it is positively classy. With $136 million in sales, South Korea is the largest market in the world outside the United States for Spam. But here, the pink luncheon meat with its gelatinous shell is deemed too nice to buy for oneself, and 40 percent of the Spam sold here is in the form of gifts.

Especially during the holidays, you can see the blue-and-yellow cans neatly stacked in the aisles of the better stores. Koreans are nearly as passionate about packaging as the Japanese, and so the Spam often comes pre-wrapped in boxed sets.

"Spam really is a luxury item," said Han Geun Rae, 43, an impeccably dressed fashion buyer who was loading gift boxes of Spam into a cart at Shinsegye department store in advance of the recent Chusok holiday.

Chusok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year here. On this one holiday alone, Korean distributor CJ Corp. estimates, 8 million cans change hands.

Han's intended recipients were her employees, among them a young single guy and a married woman with children. "Everybody loves it. It is so easy and convenient." Han expected that she would get her own complement of Spam as well -- in past Chusok seasons, about one out of three gifts she received were food sets that contained at least one can of Spam.

"My children are in high school, and they love it. I cook it in `jjigae' stew with kimchi."

"It goes very nicely with red wine," added another shopper, 44-year-old Kim Hwa Yeon, a stockbroker in a crisp navy blue suit and pearls, who said she was buying for clients.

Spam's success in South Korea is one of those cultural mysteries -- a bit like the reverence for American comedian Jerry Lewis in France -- where an image is actually improved in translation.

Not coincidentally, Spam also is popular in Hawaii, the Philippines, Owinaka, Guam and Saipan, all places with a history of U.S. military presence. The "Miracle Meat in a Can," as it was touted after its launch in 1937, was a staple of the military diet during World War II and later the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Until 1987, Koreans had to buy black-market cans of Spam that were diverted from U.S. military bases. Then CJ Corp. bought the rights from Hormel and began producing its own version.

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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