We Tried It: Vegan Spam
Sometime last year I got wind that OmniPork Luncheon a plant-based version of Spam, the kitschy American canned meat, had debuted in Hong Kong. As a super-fan of the original (I wrote the foreword to The Ultimate Spam Cookbook!), I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some. I’ve been happily watching this six-ingredient luncheon meat (pork, salt, potato starch, water, sugar, and sodium nitrate) reach a new level of respect in America thanks to a generation of Asian chefs and food writers who grew up with a more positive relationship to Spam than most of their American peers. With that rise in acceptance has come a wealth of great dishes at restaurants, in cookbooks and on the internet (look at our own gorgeous Spam Musubicake!), but unfortunately those who follow a plant-based diet couldn’t take part.
Besides being inspired by the popularity of its product among meat-eaters, this vegan luncheon “meat” has no relation to Hormel, Spam’s parent company; it’s produced by Omni Foods, a Hong Kong-based food tech company who created OmniPork, the first plant-based pork alternative, with their Canadian R&D team. After launching in Asia to overwhelming success both at restaurants and in homes, their family of OmniPork Products (ground, strips, and luncheon), arrived in US restaurants in early 2021 to much success. A few months later, the line was ready for retail – and I was ready to try it out.
OmniPork Luncheon (“Vegan Spam” really does have a better ring to it, no?) made from soy, peas, shiitake mushrooms and rice (not gluten-free, by the way) doesn’t come in a can; it’s packaged frozen and pre-sliced and can be found in the freezer aisle. Designed with a neutral flavor to pick up the nuances of what it’s cooked in or with, the vegan version is just as versatile as the original. Pop out a slice, sauté it up (no need to defrost) and then add to whatever it is you're making.
I wanted to start with a simple yet classic American dish to get a feel for OmniPork Luncheon, so I made Spam and Eggs, the breakfast dish where Spam stands in for bacon, sausage, or ham— a popular dish among the Spam set due to it’s ease and tastiness. Easy to handle and with a quick four-minute cook time, I sautéed two slices of the OmniLu (this is my new nickname for it) in olive oil, cooked my sunny sides up and upon plating let the runny egg yolks cascade across the plate. After tasting, my initial thoughts were that it wasn’t as porky as Spam (obviously), yet it was satisfying; it wasn’t as greasy, though it was far from dry; and though it didn’t have the famous gelatinous texture, it did have a pleasant sponginess that was all its own. Sautéing created a crust on the outside added a depth of flavor and a nice contract to the softer inside; a “neutral taste” doesn’t mean it has no taste. It did make a lovely companion to this simple breakfast and felt reminiscent of the real thing.
Moving into Spam traditions outside the mainland US, I prepared one of my favorite Spam snacks, the ever-popular Hawaiian favorite: Spam musubi (aka “Spam Sushi”). A great bonus of OmniLu is that it’s pre-sliced, so you can just take out what you need. I used my own wing-it-with-what-I-have-on-hand recipe, assembling the sushi rice, Kewpie mayo, teriyaki, furikake, OmniLu and seaweed wrap…and just like that a legendary snack became accessible to a whole new group of people. A bit blander than the original version as a result of the absence of actual meat, it wasn’t far off and wasn’t anything a traditional teriyaki sauce or glaze couldn’t help. Spam purists may scoff, but for those in Hawaii and elsewhere who this delightful treat was not a possibility–well, dreams do come true.
I played around with not only the luncheon pork, but the other cuts as well. Having strips and ground proteins on hand in the freezer was super handy, and not having to worry about defrosting even more so. I had fun making tacos, topping salads, mixing it into pastas, adding to ramen; basically, any form of OmniPork works with a variety of cuisines and types of dishes. And they’re relatively healthy: Compared to their animal-based counterpart, each product has fewer calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. They’re made with no hormones, antibiotics, or MSG, and are both Buddhist friendly and Halal certified.
As a rule, I’m always hesitant to compare alt-meats to the real thing, they really are (ahem) different animals. But in this case, I love that there’s a plant-based Spam – a distinctive food that brings such joy to so many – and I think this version of it will do the same to a different audience. And although it holds its own as a substitute, take that element away and it’s just a great plant-based protein. Tasty with a nice mouthfeel, it’s versatile and easy and opens the door many wonderful dishes to our vegetarian friends.