From Spam to Sisig: How Canned Meat Became a Filipino Staple

From Spam to Sisig: How Canned Meat Became a Filipino Staple

The Humble Beginnings of a Filipino Favorite

I still remember the first time I tried sisig, that iconic Filipino dish made with crispy pork bits, liver, and a tangy, umami-packed sauce. It was a revelation – the perfect balance of salty, sour, and savory flavors, with a addictively crunchy texture. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that this dish’s origins could be traced all the way back to… Spam?!

You see, the story of how canned meat became a Filipino staple is a fascinating one, full of history, culture, and the ingenuity of the Filipino people. It’s a tale that begins with wartime rationing and ends with a beloved national dish that has put Filipino cuisine on the global map. And as someone who’s passionate about exploring the culinary wonders of the Philippines, I just had to dive in and uncover this intriguing culinary journey.

The American Invasion and the Rise of Canned Meat

The Philippines’ love affair with canned meat can be traced back to the early 20th century, when the United States first established its colonial rule over the islands. As part of this occupation, the American military brought with them a bounty of canned goods, including the now-iconic Spam.

At the time, Spam was seen as a practical, shelf-stable source of protein – a boon for a country that was still largely rural and agricultural, with limited access to fresh meat. The Filipino people, who had traditionally relied on locally-sourced ingredients like fresh seafood and vegetables, quickly adapted to incorporating this new canned wonder into their daily meals.

“Spam was a godsend for a lot of Filipinos during the American occupation,” explains food historian Myrna Segismundo. “It was affordable, it was convenient, and it added a protein-packed punch to dishes that might have otherwise been quite bland or one-dimensional.”

But the story doesn’t end there. As the decades wore on and the Philippines gained its independence, Spam and other canned meats became more than just a practical ingredient – they became woven into the fabric of Filipino culture and cuisine.

The Evolution of Canned Meat in Filipino Cooking

One of the key reasons why canned meat has become so deeply ingrained in Filipino food is the incredible creativity and resourcefulness of the Filipino home cook. Rather than simply serving Spam straight out of the can, Filipinos began experimenting with ways to transform this humble ingredient into something truly special.

Enter the beloved dish of Spam tocino – thinly sliced Spam that’s been marinated in a sweet, salty, and garlicky sauce, then fried to crispy perfection. Or how about Spam sisig, where cubes of canned meat are sautéed with onions, chilies, and liver, then topped with a tangy, umami-rich dressing? These dishes, and countless others like them, showcased the versatility of canned meat and the Filipino knack for taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary.

“Filipinos have always been masters of making the most out of limited ingredients,” says Chef Margarita Fores, one of the Philippines’ leading culinary ambassadors. “Whether it’s Spam, corned beef, or any other canned meat, they’ll find a way to transform it into something delicious and unique.”

And the love for canned meat extends far beyond just Spam. Over the years, Filipinos have embraced a whole pantry full of canned protein sources, from corned beef and Vienna sausages to tuna and sardines. These shelf-stable ingredients have become indispensable staples in Filipino kitchens, providing a reliable and affordable source of sustenance.

The Rise of Sisig: Spam’s Crowning Achievement

Perhaps the most iconic and beloved dish to emerge from the Filipino love affair with canned meat is the legendary sisig. This sizzling, umami-packed dish is made by combining chopped pork (often including the less glamorous bits like cheeks and ears), liver, and…you guessed it, Spam.

The origins of sisig can be traced back to the province of Pampanga, where enterprising food vendors would take leftover pork parts and transform them into a delectable street food. Over time, the dish evolved, with the addition of crunchy pork skin, a tangy dressing, and the unexpected twist of Spam.

“Sisig is the ultimate expression of the Filipino spirit – taking something that was seen as ‘lesser’ or ‘undesirable’ and turning it into something truly special,” says food writer Claude Tayag. “It’s a dish that’s both humble and elevated, familiar yet unique.”

Today, sisig has become a point of national pride for Filipinos, with countless variations and interpretations popping up in restaurants and home kitchens across the country. And it’s not just Filipinos who have fallen in love with this dish – sisig has gained a massive global following, with chefs and food lovers around the world marveling at its bold, unapologetic flavors.

A Culinary Journey Fueled by Resilience and Creativity

The story of how canned meat became a Filipino staple is, in many ways, a microcosm of the Filipino experience itself. It’s a tale of adaptation, resourcefulness, and a relentless drive to find beauty and deliciousness in the most unexpected of places.

Whether it’s transforming humble Spam into a crispy, caramelized tocino or unleashing the umami power of corned beef in a hearty adobo, Filipinos have time and again proven their culinary prowess. And in the process, they’ve created a rich, vibrant cuisine that is truly unique and utterly captivating.

So the next time you find yourself in the Philippines, I encourage you to dive headfirst into this canned meat-fueled culinary adventure. Indulge in a sizzling plate of sisig, savor the salty-sweet goodness of Spam musubi, or simply marvel at the ingenious ways Filipinos have elevated these humble ingredients into something truly extraordinary.

After all, as the saying goes, “One man’s Spam is another man’s culinary treasure.” And in the Philippines, that treasure is a culinary legacy that continues to captivate and delight food lovers the world over.

If you’re feeling inspired to embark on your own Filipino culinary adventure, be sure to check out Philippine Getaway, where we offer a range of exciting weekend getaways, cultural explorations, adventure sports, and wellness retreats across the Philippines. From the bustling streets of Manila to the pristine beaches of Palawan, we’ll help you uncover the true essence of this extraordinary country, one delicious bite at a time.

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