I would like to start a series of posts relating to Korean gift-giving customs. In this gift-giving series, I will set out the appropriate types of gifts for different occasions according to Korean customs and explain the rationale or history behind. Today is the first post in the series and it’s about giving canned food as a premium gift in South Korea.
On the internet, spam messages are something that people want to avoid. However, in South Korea, Koreans like Spam – the American brand for the canned luncheon meat. South Korea is now the biggest consumer of Spam outside the U.S. Koreans give Spam as gifts for Seollal (설날) (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (추석) (Korean Thanksgiving) and premium gift sets of Spam are available at top department stores like Lotte during those times.
Spam was introduced into South Korea by the U.S. army stationed there during the Korean War (1950-1953). At that time, Korea was very poor and meat was a luxury food to them. The Koreans used Spam and other leftovers obtained from the U.S. army base to cook food in a hot pot. This later became the Budaejigae (부대찌개) or army stew – a Korean style hot pot containing various types of food including Spam, sausages, kimchi, and instant noodles.
Owing to the above historical reason, Spam has a special meaning to the Koreans. Even now, Spam (though being treated as a budget food in other countries like the U.S. or Hong Kong) can be given as gifts to family members and friends during important festivals like Seollal and Chuseok in South Korea. Moreover, Spam is an ingredient not only for Budaejigae but also other Korean food like kimbap (김밥), the Korean style rice rolls.
So, if you receive a Spam gift set from your Korean friend, please don’t be surprised!
Reminder: The next post will be published on 12 December 2014. Watch this space!
“In South Korea, a luncheon meat goes luxury“, Reuters Plus, video uploaded to YouTube on 2014-02-10
Choe Sang-hun, “In South Korea, Spam is the stuff gifts are made of“, The New York Times, 2014-01-26
Lucy Williamson, “Why is Spam a luxury food in South Korea?“, BBC News, 2013-09-19 – a short video clip with shots of the Spam premium gift sets and army stew is also embedded into this article.
鍾樂偉著，《韓瘋：讓世人瘋狂的韓國現象》，香港： 天窗出版社有限公司，2014年版, 100-106頁