Chef Jeremy Pang // image via Jeremy Pang
As a teenager, I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong, where my father worked and I developed a habit of running off with the teenaged bellhops and chambermaids at the various hotels my father’s company put us up in. Much to my parents chagrin, I would disappear for days on end and it was during these away-days that I encountered the cha chaan teng canteens of Kowloon and Hong Kong island. Dining with the locals during their all too-short lunch and dinner breaks meant I had to use a super-swift form of nod, point and smile when choosing items off the menus or from the steam trays; I frequently did not know what I was eating expect the odd occasion when a slice of Spam bobbed on the surface of a soupy bowl of noodles. I liked its familiarity. I liked having something in common with my new friends.
Decades later, when I heard that Chef Jeremy Pang of School of Wok fame (and a Food Network regular) had a Hong Kong-style canteen restaurant called Cha Chaan Teng in London’s Holborn, serving Spam, I had to go and eat there. The Spam was sweet, salty and moreish, with a good crunch which mirrored the soft chew of the buns it was served in. I was hooked and needed to know more and Jeremy was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his culinary Spam inspiration.
Can you tell me about the start of your love of spam and where and when you developed a taste for it?
My mum and dad used to live in and out of Hong Kong (HK) when I was younger, so when I grew up, I would travel to Hong Kong twice a year in between school terms. It was the best of both worlds – being in HK for holiday, but at the same time, knowing where all the locals go to eat… I just loved the atmosphere of the HK cafes and diners, and everyone seemed to be eating the same thing: Macaroni or vermicelli soup with spam and a fried egg on top… maybe with some chilli oil on the side… so when the waiters came around for my order – the easiest thing was to ‘copy that’ and dig into the spam! (My spoken Chinese isn’t brilliant you see – so at that stage, it was very much a point and smile type of ordering.) I guess spam has that sense of nostalgia on my palate.
You mentioned that people in HK seem fond of eating spam. Do you have any theories about why this might be so?
I believe Spam would likely to have been introduced to HK via the British after World War II. The British took a liking to Spam after the war and would have also eaten it on their long journeys whilst travelling through the world.You will find spam in all the local cha chaan tengs’ (tea house lounges) or breakfast cafes. They are essentially greasy spoons, where they will serve spam as an option for many different types of breakfast, whether it’s in a soup, with eggs and toast or in a baked bun. The saltiness tastes great and if fried, the crispy texture accentuates the softness of it the ‘meat’ inside. Hong Kong people love that ‘soft’ meat texture, which is probably why it’s still so popular out there.
macaroni and spam broth
Can you tell me how you use spam in your restaurant cooking? And do you eat it in your downtime- and how? (I have been talking to Hawaiian chefs who congregate around the spam musubi trucks after service!)
Haha… well that’s maybe something I don’t share with the Hawaiians! In the restaurant Cha Chaan Teng, in Holborn, we serve a slightly ‘posher’ version of the macaroni soup with spam and egg, where we make the bone broth from scratch, and then make some fresh pork and prawn wontons, and top it all off with the fried spam and fried egg. We also serve it with a selection fresh greens, veg and pickled carrots to get a good balance of flavour, texture and colour into the dish. My favourite way of eating it at the restaurant however, is the spam crusty roll (Spam, covered in panko and a coconut shallot crumb, deep fried and topped with a fried quail egg, and some sriracha mayo). At home – I must admit, once in a while, I might have a bowl of instant noodles with a slice of Spam here or there, but only really after a night out….
If you wanted to persuade someone to eat spam, maybe someone who ate it at school and has disliked it ever since, what would you cook for them to best showcase it?
That crispy roll with spam…
Can you tell me about your Holborn restaurant and the thinking behind its menus and philosophy? Were there a few eye-blinks when you mentioned cooking with spam?
There were many “eye blinks” at the beginning, but over time, the customers have grown to understand that the food I have created at Cha Chaan Teng is playful, but most of all, very tasty. The idea behind the menu was that we would take the ‘essence’ of a classic Cha Chaan Teng and, as the owners (Splendid Restaurant Group) of CCT like to say, “flip it on it’s head”, with dishes that have influence from both the Western and Eastern world. This is exactly what the biggest and best CCT’s in Hong Kong have become – a miss match of more-ish foods from around the world- that Hong Kong Chinese have somehow found a craving for at some point in time.
How do customers react to your spam dishes? Are they pleasantly surprised or are you catering to spam lovers already?
Yes, once they have gotten over the word ‘SPAM’ I think most are indeed, pleasantly surprised :).
How versatile is spam as an ingredient?
For the meat eaters out there, it’s pretty versatile, it’s soft and salty, yet can be crisped up easily and balanced out with other flavours. A little bit of spam in you life here or there wont hurt. Apparently, there is much more meat in Spam than the average burger in the UK. (It was mentioned in the BBC news a few years back, that the average economy burger in the UK only has to have 47% meat in it!) Spam is essentially much like the inside of a frankfurter, but again, it’s likely to have a lot more meat in it than the average hot dog… That said, it’s not something that should necessarily be part of your daily diet (there’s quite a lot of salt content in Spam!) So…eat it once in a while, as a guilty pleasure or treat, like a hot dog or a burger and if you have a balanced diet on most days, why not let yourself have a little taste?