WELLESLEY — Those who know Susumu “Sus” Ito, 93, know that he is a Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American), a Congressional Gold Medal recipient from World War II’s legendary all-Japanese-American 442d Regimental Combat Team, an emeritus professor at Harvard Medical School, a furniture maker, photographer, dad, and grandfather.
But what many may not know is that Ito is also a master at Spam musubi, the Hawaiian snack made with the infamous canned ham and rice. Spam musubi is part of a cuisine adapted by Japanese immigrants who settled in Hawaii in the first half of the last century. One of their specialties was rice balls (musubi). GIs stationed in Hawaii had in their rations cans of Spam, the meat product made by Hormel Foods with pork shoulder, ham, and spices, says Ito.
Over time, Japanese cooks found Spam (the words combine “spiced” and “ham”), added it to their rice, and Spam musubi was born. The dish is made by pan frying slices of Spam and setting them between layers of rice, then seasoning and wrapping them in nori, a roasted seaweed.
Today, like other transmogrified dishes, Spam musubi has enthusiasts far from its birthplace; it’s popular in California and even spotted at izakaya, Tokyo pubs. Think of it as something like California rolls. The sushi rice with avocado and crab, an American twist on Japanese cuisine, made its way back across the Pacific.
Ito was raised in Stockton, Calif., and learned to cook from his mother, Hisayo, who made traditional maki zushi, rice rolls with vegetables. In 1941, while he served in the US Army, his mother and family were interned at Topaz in Utah and he would visit periodically.
Ten 10 years ago, after a trip to California, when he tried Spam musubi, he thought, “I can make this myself.”
He lives in the Wellesley home he shared with his late wife of 64 years, Minnie Tsuji Ito, cooking and cleaning for himself, even chopping logs for a wood-burning stove. On a bright day in his kitchen, the spry nonagenarian lines up the ingredients for musubi. He opens a can of Spam, slices and browns it in a skillet with teriyaki sauce, and lets it form a shiny glaze. “I ate a lot of Spam while I was in the Army,” says Ito, “and didn’t really like the taste then.”
Now the dish is his specialty. To make the layers, he uses a two-piece plexiglass press about 2-inches-by-2-inches-by-4-inches to shape it, scooping the rice and spreading it inside one piece of plexiglass. With chopsticks he picks up a piece of Spam and lays it on the rice, adds a drizzle of wasabi sauce, a flourish of red ginger shreds, and a shower of Japanese savory sprinkles (called furikake; this is his secret seasoning), a combination of seaweed, sesame seeds, and dried salmon flakes. Then he spreads on one more layer of rice, dips the smaller flat plexi rectangle, which is fitted with a grip, into water, and presses down on the layers. He lifts the form and wraps the rice and spam in roasted seaweed. With the tip of a knife moistened with water, he slices his masterpiece into several pieces. Then he makes another and another. “No way mom would make this,” he says, amused.
The sweet, salty, very rich meat, rice, and seasonings blend together in an unlikely but delicious combination.
Ito’s Spam musubi is in demand. Whenever he attends a meeting or party, he brings along a tray. Every year Margie Yamamoto, a Lincoln resident and friend of Ito’s, hosts a Japanese New Year’s party for over 100, and Ito’s Spam musubi is a hit.
Yamamoto reports that her guests ask, “What’s this? It’s fabulous!”
Then she tells them it’s Spam.
Debra Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.