We like Hawaiian foods here on the mainland. Have you tracked the poke explosion? One day, a chef said, “Let’s put this on the menu and see how it does,” and the next week it was everywhere. That sounds like hyperbole but it’s pretty much spot on. According to Foursquare, the number of Hawaiian restaurants in the U.S. has doubled in the past two years 342 to 700 as of August 2016.
Poke, which is still in the midst of its cultural moment, is a natural fit for modern diners. The dish — made of raw fish, usually a type of tuna, sprinkled with seaweed, kukui nut, and Hawaiian rock salt — slides neatly into the current “build your own lunch” trend popular in big cities. It’s also healthy while being flavorful, which checks a lot of boxes for modern diners. Considering that most poke in the U.S. is still found on the West Coast, and just now starting to spread to big cities in the east, it probably isn’t going away for awhile. But it’s not too soon to wonder: What’s the next Hawaiian food to hit the mainland?
Darrell Yuen believes he’s got the answer. Having grown up in Hawaii, he knows all the local staples — chicken long rice, poi, and musubi. Musubi, for the uninitiated, is a ball of rice, usually wrapped in seaweed, and often stuffed with a protein (something akin to oversized pieces of sushi). You can’t walk into a grocery store or 7-11 anywhere on Oahu without seeing some. And the most popular variety — by a long shot — is covered with a slice of spam.
No one who’s visited Hawaii since the mid-1940s will be surprised to find that the state leads all others in Spam consumption, with seven million cans per year. Like the relationship between Native Americans and fry bread, this love was born from necessity — Spam rose to importance in Hawaii post-World War II, when fishing restrictions and import bans meant people had fewer proteins to base their meals around. The Spam coming from Army bases soon grew into a local staple. Now, Yuen hopes to honor that connection with his new fast-casual spot in Portland — simply called ‘Musubi.’
Considering the snack food’s on-the-go appeal, adaptability, and cultural tie-ins, musubi seems poised for booming growth in the U.S. Already, restaurants serving Spam musubi (along with other varieties) have made waves in L.A., San Diego, and New York. Yuen’s menu stars artisanal handmade spam musubi, but also highlights lobster knuckle and Korean chicken varieties. We spoke to him about where musubi comes from, and where he thinks it might be headed.
Can you tell me how musubi came to be so popular in Hawaii and now in the states?
I credit it back to the turn of the last century. The Hawaiian economy was driven by sugar and pineapple industries. The Spanish people brought in foreign labors from China, Japan, Philippines, Portugal, and Korea. They lived in these encampments on the plantation. The Japanese brought highly salted rice and seaweed over, and different cultures used to change things and add it the rice ball. The rice ball was a great snack to have on the farm, then it was made rectangular to meet the shape of spam, which was popular in Hawaii during World War II as a ration. Growing up, it’s always something people ate. For lunch or as a snack after Little League. In Southern California, there’s a burgeoning movement for this.
Is Hawaiian food only big on the west coast or have you seen it on the east coast too?
There are a few places that do it on the east coast — not solely musubi, but Japanese delis offer it. I’ve found it in New York City, and that’s the only place so far. I’ve seen it in LA And Orange County. In the Pacific Northwest, however, there’s no place that specifically devotes themselves to rice balls.
Why are people snobs about spam?
People in Hawaii eat spam all the time. It’s everywhere and everyone serves it. I never grew up with that notion it’s a bad thing. When we talk about this product and say that we make our own spam, people always want to talk about how we make it. They say “I never eat spam, but if you make it yourself, I’ll eat it!”
We call it “artisanal spam” for all the people who wouldn’t like it. Spam probably got a bad rap along the line for being mystery meat.
Do you buy spam in the can?
At the restaurant we make it all from scratch. For me personally? Yes, I buy it by the case at Costco.
Your shop is only going to sell musubi, correct?
Yes. We do have a few sides, but it’s basically all rice balls.
How long has musubi been a part of your life?
It was mostly made at home. My mom grew up on a sugar plantation so she learned how to make it there, and she always made it for me for lunches and snacks on the weekend. So this is like childhood memories for me, every time I see and taste it. In high school it started to crop up more in convenience stores and supermarkets. It’s the perfect thing to eat after a day at the beach. It’s something about the savory spam on the rice with the nori around it. It’s great with a light beer.
When did your store open?
We had the official opening on October 3rd, but we were already delivering anyway.
For people who don’t live in Portland or LA or any of the cities that have been on the forefront of this movement, can they get or make their own musubi in the traditional Hawaiian style?
Yes. You can use spam. It takes marinades and sauces really well. You can pan-fry the spam lightly with a little bit of teriyaki on it. The key, period, is that you have to get really get good rice. Get short grain rice as opposed to medium or long-grain rice, specifically sushi rice. That kind of rice binds together the best. You want the rice to be good. If you can afford it, get a rice cooker. If you have really good rice and a rice cooker, you’re 90% there. You can get molds to make the rice shapes you want — we’ll sell the molds at our store. If you don’t have a mold, you can put about four ounces of rice in saran wrap and form a triangle with your hands. Stick in the middle whatever savory surprise you want. We do cooked salmon sometimes — flake it up, put that salmon in the middle. Make sure you have good quality salt. Try to use Maldon salt or sea salt, not kosher or table salt. Make sure your hand is a little wet, and use salty hands to form your rice ball. Then take your nori sheet. We like two inch strips. Put the nori around the rice, and that’s it.
How does your store plan to give back to the community in Portland?
I used to work in non-profits. In Oregon, one in five people go hungry and that’s too many. Ten percent of every order is going to go to Portland Fruit Tree Project. They go to people’s houses who have fruit trees and pick it for them, and give it to shelters. We’re going to be working with them for a year.