In a brightly lit restaurant in downtown Hong Kong, the meaty smell of fried spam fills the air.
As other staff prepare for the lunchtime rush, a cook is putting the finishing touches to a bowl of instant noodles, egg and spam, a dish so popular and iconic of local cuisine that it has its own shorthand in Cantonese (chaan daan mihn).
But this bowl is different: despite being topped with two pink slabs of luncheon meat, it doesn’t actually contain any animal products. The “spam” is vegan, a meat-free alternative developed by OmniFoods, a Hong Kong-based food producer and social enterprise.
Like its US-based competitors Beyond Meat and Impossible, OmniFoods targets both vegetarians and meat-eaters with its plant-based foods, seeking to provide an ethical alternative that is less-environmentally damaging than meat.
While Beyond and Impossible started out focused on beef, “from the beginning, it was very obvious that in Asia, the most-consumed meat is pork,” said OmniFoods founder David Yeung.
According to the OECD, on average, Koreans eat 31.2 kilograms (69 lb) of pork per year, while people in mainland China eat 24.4 kg, both well above the international average of 11.1 kg.
After selling a “minced pork” product to both consumers and chains like Starbucks in China, Yeung said a plant-based alternative to spam, or luncheon meat, was always the clear next step.
That’s because while it has a less than stellar reputation in many Western countries, spam is beloved in much of Asia. According to recent market research, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for some 39% of luncheon meat sales, with China, South Korea and Japan among the top consumers.
“Some people eat (spam) like five times a day,” Yeung said, as staff served the meat-free spam noodles, along with two other products, “Omni Luncheon and Eggless Toast” and “OmniPork Luncheon Fries” – admittedly, the name doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “spam.”
Visually, the 9 cm (3.5 inch) long, 1 cm (0.4 inch) thick pink slabs almost indistinguishable from spam, and when put in a hot pan sizzle satisfyingly, giving off an intensely meaty aroma. While connoisseurs may disagree, to a casual eater, Omni-spam tastes the same too: salty, fatty and rich. The biggest difference is that the plant-free product comes in frozen packs of six, rather than in a canned block of meat.
Given the popularity and ubiquity of spam in Asia – Yeung compared it to how widely bacon is used in all types of meals in the US – the company was always confident that there was a market for its meat-free alternative, but Yeung said they were nevertheless surprised by the level of reaction.
“People were saying like, ‘wow, this is the greatest invention’,” he said, a reception not dissimilar to that which greeted the first cans of spam to arrive in Asia decades earlier.
First produced in 1937 by Hormel Foods, a Minnesota-based slaughterhouse company, spam was intended as a way to sell surplus pork shoulder. To this day, it only contains six ingredients: pork, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrate, which helps with preservation.
SPAM® – as Hormel styles it, in a decades-long, losing battle against genericization – was initially marketed to soldiers. By 1941, more than 100 million pounds of spam had been shipped abroad to feed allied troops during World War II, and large quantities were also sold to countries suffering as a result of the conflict.
In his memoirs, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev writes that “without spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army,” while British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recalled serving spam and salad to friends over Christmas in 1943, along with “one of our very precious tins of fruit which we’d saved from the pre-war days.” Even decades later, when she w