A taste of Hawaii: Your new favorite flavor is…spam?

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Riki Tanabe's popular Hawaiian food—which, yes, includes Spam—will get a brick and mortar spot later this year. Photo: Paul Whicheloe Riki Tanabe’s popular Hawaiian food—which, yes, includes Spam—will get a brick and mortar spot later this year. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

Spam musubi is a dish in which the aforementioned Hormel pork product is grilled, laid on a block of sticky white rice and wrapped together with nori, in the Japanese style. In Hawaii, where more Spam is consumed per capita than any other state in the union, Spam musubi is ubiquitous: available everywhere from gas station convenience stores to finer establishments.

“It’s the quintessential Hawaiian snack food. It’s convenient. It doesn’t need to be heated,” Riki Tanabe says. “It will satisfy you more than a candy bar will and carry over to your next meal if you need it.”

Tanabe has been serving and selling out of Spam musubi, along with a menu of other traditional Hawaiian dishes, at the Charlottesville City Market in preparation for opening his takeout and catering restaurant, Mochiko Cville, later this year.

Tanabe, who grew up in Hawaii and has been the pastry chef at Albemarle Baking Company since 2000, believes the timing is right to introduce Charlottesville to Hawaiian food, where the regional cuisine is heavily influenced by Pacific cultures including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Filipino.

Other dishes Tanabe plans to serve include chicken katsu, a Panko-breaded cutlet deep-fried and served with Hawaiian barbecue sauce; teriyaki beef; grilled shrimp and poke bowls, an increasingly popular dish usually consisting of raw salmon or tuna marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and scallions. Tanabe will serve it over a bed of rice with nori, encouraging diners to make their own hand rolls.

Tanabe also plans to serve poke bowls, a popular Hawaiian dish comprising raw salmon or tuna over rice. Photo: Paul Whicheloe
Tanabe also plans to serve poke bowls, a popular Hawaiian dish comprising raw salmon or tuna over rice. Photo: Paul Whicheloe

“In Hawaii it’s so popular that they’ll sell it by the pound,” he says. “I’d like to get to that point where I’d be able to just sell poke in a dish by the pound like they sell potato salad at Whole Foods.” He also plans a monthly luau feast serving smoked pig seasoned with alaea, a Hawaiian red sea salt, and wrapped in banana leaves.

The eatery’s namesake, Mochiko, is soy-marinated, deep-fried chicken. “I chose Mochiko because I wanted it to be a Hawaiian restaurant without hitting people over the head with it,” he says. “Calling it Mochiko implies that it’s going to be more of the Hawaiian regional or Hawaiian casual food that most natives would eat.”

Tanabe characterizes Spam musubi similarly: “If you walk into the shop and you see Spam musubi, it kind of legitimizes you as an authentic Hawaiian eatery,” he says.

Spam’s popularity in Hawaii goes back to World War II, when it and other canned meats like Vienna Sausage and corned beef were among the few sources of cheap, nonperishable protein available. Tanabe acknowledges Spam is nothing fancy, but it reminds him of his Japanese grandparents who were living on Oahu during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and had to persevere. Spam helped.

“It is what it is,” he says, “but it’s a symbol for me that helped my ancestors get through the tough times that they had and I’m here today because of them, so I owe the Spam some respect.”

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