Perhaps the most-often-suggested ghetto food for this series: Spam. The stuff that clogs our inboxes started as a salty canned pork product that divides people; half wrinkle their noses and the other half admit they’d eat it if it was in front of them. I’ve actually never had Spam, and truth be told, it’s not even a cheap meat product. It’s almost $4! I’d rather eat a pack of cold chicken wieners or raw Kraft Dinner out of the box. But someone had to take this long-loved item and do something with it. The “chosen one”: chef Nuit Regular, of popular Thai restaurant Khao San Road.
Working as a nurse in Thailand, Nuit opened up a restaurant and began cooking in the evenings. In Canada for seven years, she brought her traditional Thai recipes to the constantly bustling Khao San Road. Her mise en place is elaborate. Thin wild ginger shaped like tiny carrots, galangal that looks like a white version of ginger root but smells much sweeter, dried chilies, kafir lime leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, cilantro and thinly sliced long yard beans.
It’s not every day you see a chef wearing a skirt in the kitchen, but Nuit is decked out in purple; grabbing some lavender-coloured kitchen towels, she shyly explains, “I love purple. It makes me happy.”
Nuit took this task seriously. She experimented with many Spam dishes before deciding on two that worked. The first is a traditional northern Thai dish called Nam Plik Ong, which is usually made with ground pork. Nuit described it as a sort of “relish,” traditionally eaten with rice and vegetables you’d gather from your garden. With a mortar and pestle she grinds together wild ginger, galangal, dried chilies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, tomatoes and cilantro root. I ask if she means the stems and she said, “no, we use the root. It has a strong and fresh smell.” And here I am, the amateur cook, who has been throwing away my cilantro roots all this time. Cilantro roots are gold, people! Gold! Stop throwing them away!
Nuit mentions a few times that many dishes failed because Spam is so salty. And it is, it’s like gelatinous sodium with a pork binding agent. So this begs the question, what was the hardest part about cooking with Spam? “The salt. And the smell.”
The Nam Plik Ong is quickly stir-fried with oil and garlic and served canapé style on some sliced cucumbers. It actually works because it cuts some of the saltiness in the Spam.
The second dish that Nuit prepares is a traditional Thai deep-fried fish cake, but with Spam instead of fish. Spam cake! It’s not a dessert. Nuit mixes the Spam with her own curry paste and adds a generous amount of kaffir lime leaves, some diced long yard beans for crunch and a splash of fish sauce. The results are little deep-fried nuggets fragrant with kaffir lime leaves and curry spices. Served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side, the Spam nuggets really aren’t bad. While this gourmet Spam experience was an eye-opener, the Spam-less offerings at Khao San Road are truly worth sampling.