Vittles 2.4

A Big Bag of Cans: Making use of tinned fish and meats

Does anyone remember that briefly lived restaurant in Soho that just served tinned fish? It feels like a fever dream to me now. It was so obviously a great and a terrible idea; great because it was a surefire way to get press and tinned fish has a high ceiling for deliciousness, and terrible because it turned a good point about the benefits of eating fish and the impact of preserving over freshness into a middle class version of the Cereal Killer Cafe. Ideally I’d love to have that concept again, but with tinned fish and meats from around the world, not for eating in but just for sale to take away and eat at home, which is exactly where tinned fish should be consumed.

I don’t think you could get away a restaurant that just served tinned meat, although the closest that anyone got to it was the ‘Spam Only’ one off dinner at Los Angeles’s Yi Cuisine which Jonathan Gold, in one of his most absurd reviews, heroically wrote up for LA Weekly. The Gold piece makes the point that Spam was already a part of Los Angeles food culture: you could find it in Korean budae jjigae, Hawaiian musubi, in Samoan cuisine, in Cantonese cuisine, in Filipino cuisine. A decade earlier Gold had a reviewed a Spamburger and talked about spam’s aspirational nature, a rich, salty, fatty, meaty food for a national appetite that worshiped those qualities. “Spam is what this nation is all about” Gold claimed, “a pig in a can and two cars in every garage. Spam tastes like America”. It was in Los Angeles that I had my first great experience with Spam, a brunch at the Line Hotel with fried rice, scrambled eggs, kimchi and luscious fried cubes of Spam, a tribute by Roy Choi to spam’s cross-cultural influence on the city’s dining habits. I didn’t repeat that experience until just before the lockdown started, when I ate a Spam fritter, the size of a piece of toast, fried in beef dripping at Knight’s Fish Bar in West Norwood - just uncomplicatedly, ecstatically, appallingly delicious - the essence of the pig and the cow united in a bite.

Of course, tinned food is going to see a resurgence over the next few months, fueled by uncertainty in the fresh food supply chain as well as the evangelism of people like Jack Monroe who has been banging the cans for tinned vegetables, fish and meat for years. Britain’s relationship with tinned food is very much shaped by the idea of rationing and army provisions, by bully beef and Fray Bentos. In the national consciousness it is poverty food of no nutritional value. So for this newsletter I thought it might be fun to get two perspectives from countries where this association is not the case.

Georgine Leung is a nutritionist who grew up in Hong Kong, where tinned luncheon meats and condensed milk are a part of the cuisine. For Vittles she has written a defence of tinned fish and how we can look beyond the ubiquitous salmon and tuna to the tinned fish available in East Asian supermarkets. KL-born Guan Chua may be known to you already as The Boy Who Ate The World, and the chef behind NyonyaSupperClub. His Spam recipes are already available on his blog, but he has also kindly donated these to Vittles are have been republished here in an edited form.

Making use of Tinned Fish, by Georgine Leung

illustration credit Goldthread 2

At the beginning of March, as the COVID-19 related panic began to spread, the whole section of canned and tinned fish seemed to have disappeared from the supermarket shelves into thin air. In truth, I was quite surprised to see it, as I would have never considered them a popular food in the UK, apart from the occasional round cans of tuna and salmon. I’ve always wondered why the rectangular tins of fish (the oily kinds apart from salmon) aren’t more popular in the UK when there isn’t a pandemic going on, but then perhaps stockpiling tinned items plus a renewed interest in homecooking provides an opportunity for us to incorporate these ‘unconventional’ types of canned fish for our ‘quarantine cuisine’.

I am an avid fan of canned fish, not just because of their taste or because I am well versed in their nutrition profile (most of the types of fish I love are oily kinds rich in omega-3 fatty acids and great for heart health), but also because of my background.

I grew up in Hong Kong, which has a strong food culture mainly based on fresh, seasonal food, particularly fish and seafood. Yet our family cupboard always had canned fish. My parents came from a generation when industrialised foods became popular; fresh meat was expensive and hard to come by, so along with traditionally preserved items such as dried fish and sausages, canned meats also became everyday items to feed the influx of migrants fleeing the Chinese Civil War. Luncheon meat, a post-war food product was introduced in the Far East and the Pacific as an easy substitute for meat. This was not limited to homecooking, but local diners (aka cha chaan teng) in Hong Kong also started serving it along with other imported foods to create a localised, accessible version of Western cuisine.

The British influence in the former crown colony also brought a taste for tea with milk, but without local dairy production fresh milk was not available, so imported evaporated or condensed milk became a suitable alternative. Condensed milk is a popular topping for toast at cha chaan tengs too.

Contrary to the use of these tinned foods in dining settings, canned fish is mostly eaten at home. Certain types of canned fish became ubiquitously Cantonese, to the extent students and workers alike packed them in their suitcases when they moved overseas for a taste of home – my mum and dad certainly did when they left Hong Kong for London in the 1980s.

There are two main styles of canned fish that we like. The first is the Chinese salted black beans with fried dace, a brackish water fish from the Pearl River Delta region in its signature yellow and red packaging. Canned dace is often served as a standalone dish, with freshly cooked jasmine rice, but is also used as a stir-fry ingredient. When cooked with green leafy vegetables, from Chinese lettuce, mustard greens to choi sum, the salted black beans with their oils serve as a wonderful culinary item in its own right, without the need for additional seasonings. 

The second type of canned fish we always have is sardines in tomato sauce found at Thai grocery stores. These are very similar to the ones from mainstream markets, maybe a little sweeter, but very handy to pick up along with other things when shopping at an Oriental mart. Like the fried dace, sardines in tomato sauce is a dish in a can, great with rice and noodles, sometimes with instant ramen – a treat in our family every now and then. I also use it as a filling for toasted wraps or as an ingredient for tomato sauces with chopped vegetables or peas to create a flavourful base, and a source of protein. 

With concerns over price but with more interest in eating fish and seafood in the UK, perhaps it takes a crisis for us to turn our gaze to these alternative options available, which are not only cheap and cheerful, but also last a while in the store cupboards. Canned fish has been an important fuel feeding communities around the world for a long time. With more of us finding ways to make use of cupboard items during this pandemic, I hope we will learn to become more creative in how we can use canned fish in our diet, not as a stop-gap, but ultimately to improve the way we eat.

Stir-fried lettuce with dace and black beans

1 tbsp of black beans in oil (from can)

50g (around ¼ can) of fried dace 

1 round or iceberg lettuce, core removed

  • Heat the black beans in its oil from the can in the pan for 2 minutes. 

  • Add the dace, breaking the flesh for another minute, then add the lettuce. 

  • Cook for around 5 minutes until the lettuce leaves wilt. 

  • Serve as a standalone dish with rice or noodles, or as a side to mains.

Three Ways With Spam, by Guan Chua

Such strange and uncertain times we find ourselves in. With Supper Clubs and cooking gigs on hold in the coming months, I’ve found the past couple of weeks totally discombobulating – a mixture of worry, helplessness and anxiety on most days. The one solace however has been in the kitchen – cooking and mealtimes providing some semblance of structure to the day.

With some newfound spare time, I wanted to share some simple and easy pandemic-friendly recipes using mainly store cupboard, pantry and frozen ingredients. With everyone cooking more at home and fresh produce getting trickier to get a hold of, I figure these recipes will get far more mileage than the specialist Nyonya recipes I usually publish. And where better to start, than with one of my favourite store cupboard gems – Spam a.k.a. Luncheon Meat!

A quick note on Luncheon Meat brands - the Spam brand is of course the most readily available.  Do however lookout for my favourite ‘Ma-Ling’ brand Luncheon Meat. I find it slightly less salty and prefer the smoother texture relative to Spam. You can find it easily in most Asian grocery shops. The larger supermarket giants such as Tesco also stock it these days.

So whether you have a block of Tofu in need of a makeover,  some leftover rice to fry up, or if all you are after is a good ol’ sandwich, here are three ways with Spam that I hope will bring a little bit of tinned food joy into your locked down home kitchens.

Mapo Spam Tofu

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 1x 340g tin of Spam or Luncheon Meat (Ma-Ling brand preferably), cut into small 1cm cubes

  • 10ml vegetable oil

  • ½ onion, finely chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed

  • 3 dried chillies, deseeded

  • 250g aubergine, cut into 1 cm cubes

  • 300g firm Tofu, cut into 2 cm cubes

  • 1 tbsp cornflour mixed with 50ml cold water (to thicken the sauce)

  • Pinch of sea Salt & white pepper to taste

  • 1 stalk spring onion, finely sliced for garnish

Sauce Mix:

  • 3 tbsp Doubanjiang chilli bean paste

  • 2 tbsp ‘Laoganma’ Preserved Black Beans in Chilli Oil (normal chilli oil will suffice too as a substitute)

  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce

  • 1 tsp 5-spice powder

  • 1 tbsp sugar

  • 150 ml water

  • Optional: 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

Method

  • In a medium-sized sauce or sauté pan, stir-fry the Spam cubes in the vegetable oil for about 3 minutes until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the Spam from the wok and set aside. Reserve the Spam-infused oil in the pan.

  • Add the onions, ginger, garlic, Szechuan peppercorns & dried chillies to the Spam-infused oil and stir-fry for 2 minutes on a low-medium heat until aromatic.

  • Add the aubergine and fry for 2 minutes then pour in the sauce mix. Cover with a lid and simmer everything for about 5 minutes until the aubergine is tender. Add a bit of water if the sauce starts to dry up.

  • Next, add the Tofu and fried Spam cubes in. Mix gently to avoid breaking up the Tofu too much. Cover with a lid and cook for a further 3 to 4 minutes. Thicken the sauce with the cornflour and season with a pinch of Salt and Pepper to taste.

  • Garnish with spring onions and serve with plenty of steamed rice!

Spam Sambal Cheese Sando

Ingredients (serves 1)

  • Half of a 340g tin of Spam or luncheon meat, cut into 1cm thick slices

  • 10ml vegetable oil

  • 2 slices white bread, thick-sliced

  • 10g unsalted butter, softened

  • 1 slice Emmental cheese (grated will do just fine too, as long as there’s enough cheese to cover one slice of bread)

  • 3 slices pickled gherkins

  • 1 tsp ready-made sambal chilli paste (I favour ‘Tean’s Gourmet’ if you can find it)

Method

  • Heat up the oil in a large frying pan, and cook the Spam slices over a medium-high heat, about 2 minutes each side until golden brown. Set aside, reserving the Spam-infused oil.

  • Spread the butter on the 2 slices of bread. Starting with the side without the butter, fry the bread in the reserved spam oil for 1 to 2 minutes until lightly toasted.

  • Flip both slices of bread and fry the buttered side. Set 1 slice aside when toasted for the top slice. For the other, top with the cheese and cook until it has melted and the bread is toasted. Cover with a lid to help generate some steam to melt the cheese if needed.

  • Cover the cheese with the fried Spam slices, spread a teaspoon of sambal all over the Spam, then top of the sliced gherkins.

  • Add the top slice of bread to assemble the full sandwich & tuck in!

Kimchi Spam Fried Rice

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 1x 340g tin of Spam or Luncheon Meat (Ma-Ling brand preferably), cut into small 1cm cubes

  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil

  • ½ onion, finely chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 200g mixed vegetables, (e.g. leftover courgettes, carrots, peas or the standard frozen carrot-corn-pea medley will do the job)

  • 4 servings of Jasmine rice, cooked (see rice cooking tips/notes below)

  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

  • 200g Kimchi. roughly chopped

  • Salt to taste

Sauce Mix:

  • 2 tbsp Gojuchang Korean red pepper paste

  • 2 tbsp ABC Kecap Manis (sweet soya sauce)

  • 2 tbsp light soya sauce

  • 2 tbsp hot water

Method

  • In a large wok (or frying pan), stir-fry the Spam cubes in the vegetable oil for about 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the Spam from the wok and set aside. Reserve the Spam-infused oil in the wok to fry your rice!

  • Add the onions, stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes until fragrant then add the garlic and mixed vegetables. Stir-fry for about 3 minutes.

  • Next, add the cooked rice and sauce mix. Stir-fry until the rice grains are hot and steaming throughout.

  • Add the Eggs in and mix thoroughly through the hot rice grains until the egg has fully cooked through.

  • Lastly, add the chopped Kimchi and mix through. Season with salt to taste then serve up!

Georgine Leung is a nutritionist in food studies studying postpartum food practices. She is on Twitter and Instagram as @georginechikchi where she shares tips and recipes.

Guan Chua is a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef and supperclub host who blogs at The Boy Who Ate The World, and cooks at the now-on-hiatus NyonyaSupperClub. His full blog post on spam can be found on his blog here https://theboywhoatetheworld.com/2020/03/30/pandemic-recipe-series-3-ways-with-spam-mapo-tofu-sando-and-fried-rice/ . Guan donated his piece to Vittles.

All photos have been provided by the writers, except for the illustration which has been taken with credit from Goldthread 2’s blog on canned food in Hong Kong