When my boyfriend’s 40th birthday was coming up, I knew I had to do something special. He’s from Hawaii and shared with me that his favorite food of all time was Spam musubi.
Spam musubi is a Hawaii staple – a bed of sushi rice topped with fried spam, flavored with teriyaki sauce and Japanese furikake seasoning, all wrapped in nori. Spam made its debut to Hawaii during World War II and was so successfully integrated into the local cuisine that it remained a staple long after the war ended. Today, Hawaiians eat the most spam per capita of any state in the US – an estimated 7 million cans per year! While Spam musubi is uniquely Hawaiian, the snack has its origins in Japanese onigiri, rice balls wrapped in nori.
Of course, I didn’t expect to make musubi. I’ve never made sushi and I don’t eat meat, never mind spam. I quickly researched where to buy enough Spam musubi in New York City to feed 20 people without breaking the bank. And would our New Yorker friends even be willing to eat spam? As a vegetarian, what would I eat at this party?
After several fruitless Google searches, it became clear that the easiest and most economical way to have musubi at the party was to DIY. I refused to miss out on the musubi fun so I found some great inspiration for tofu “Spam” musubi online and followed this recipe by Rachel Hutchings from One Green Planet, with a few adaptations of my own. Then I hit up my local Japanese grocery store for sushi rice, nori strips, mirin, teriyaki sauce, furikake, and sushi molds. I looked for a furikake variety without dried fish and settled on one made primarily of sesame seeds and seaweed.
Then came the day of reckoning – party day! I started the tofu musubi the night before by pressing the tofu, preparing the marinade, shaping the tofu, and letting it marinate overnight. The marinade was a delicious mixture of vegetable broth, soy sauce, maple syrup, paprika, mirin, ginger, and garlic, simmered and sieved.
Early the next morning, I started cooking the rice while I baked the marinated tofu slices in the oven. The Spam version was much simpler as you can fry it out of the can without having to go through the marinating and baking process. Then it was assembly time! David helped me out with his years of experience eating musubi by explaining the layers – nori, rice, furikake, tofu/Spam. The layers were pressed into bite-sized sushi molds, flipped, and pressed again to hold their shape. And ta-da! Musubi!
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Making bite-sized musubi for a crowd required time to cut nori, stuff the molds, layer the filling, and shape to perfection. Never mind the challenges of keeping the nori dry, remembering the correct order of the layers, and flipping the molds repeatedly all while trying to keep your fingers rice free. This work-intensive process led to some frustration in the kitchen at the beginning!
Making musubi certainly takes patience and time, but it’s also a recipe you can do in steps rather than all at once. While David swore he would never do it again, I felt extremely proud to see the musubi hors d’oeuvres that had been carefully assembled by hand and actually looked semi-professional. And it turns out even New Yorkers can enjoy Spam musubi. Though every single guest had said that they’d never eaten Spam, by the end of the night, we had finished off two cans of it! While the carnivores agreed that the tofu musubi didn’t taste quite like Spam (but really, what does?), it was still delicious and they were also gone at the end of the night.
Tofu “Spam” Musubi
Makes ~27 pieces of musubi, depending on the size of your molds. Time is 2.5 hours, but you can do the steps at different times.
- 14 oz. extra firm or firm tofu
- ½ cup vegetable broth
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 ½ teaspoons mirin
- ½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
- 1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
- 4 sheets of nori, cut to fit molds (I did 5.5″ x 1″)
- 4 cups cooked sushi rice (for a healthier option, use brown rice)
- furikake, to taste
- 27 pieces Spam tofu
- Large bowl
- Fine strainer
- Sushi molds (buy at an Asian store or online, the size of the molds will change your yield)
- Tofu press or some heavy books
- Baking sheet
- Parchment paper
Make the tofu Spam.
- Remove excess water from the tofu by draining the package, gently squeezing out the water, and patting dry with a paper towel. Press the tofu – see here for a great hack if you don’t own a tofu press. Press for at least 30 minutes.
- Prepare marinade by mixing the vegetable broth, soy sauce, maple syrup, smoked paprika, mirin, ginger, and garlic in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Let the marinade cool slightly and run through a fine strainer to remove the solids. *I used a nut milk bag, but any strainer with holes small enough to filter the bits of garlic and ginger will do.
- Slice the tofu to the length and width of mold. The height should be thin, about 1/4 inch. *I made bite-sized musubi hors d’oeuvres (2¼” x 1¼”) in rectangular molds, but musubis in Hawaii are often bigger. For the mini musubis, I sliced the tofu into 2” x 1” x ¼” rectangles. This was a good size for my mold.
- Place the tofu in a large bowl and cover with the marinade. Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least a few hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Carefully lay the marinated tofu slabs on your baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Preserve your leftover marinade – don’t throw it out! Remove from oven, flip over, and apply excess marinade. Bake for an additional 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
Assemble the musubi.
- Prepare the components. Cook rice, make tofu spam, and cut nori into strips that will allow you to wrap once around your mold.
- Make each musubi: Lay a nori strip in the middle of your mold first. Add the rice on top of the nori, filling the bottom 2/3 of your mold. Don’t be afraid to pack it in! Sprinkle with furikake to taste. Add a tofu slab and wrap the nori all the way around. Close the mold and press to improve the shape. Repeat until you’ve made as many as the ingredients allow. Voila! You have musubi. Serve warm or cold.
- Avoid sticky rice hands. I got frustrated fast because the rice was sticking to my hands like crazy, preventing me from handling the delicate nori. The solution is to have a bowl of warm salt water nearby to dip your fingers.
- Buy full sheets of nori. We had judged that it would be easier to buy the snack packs of nori because, how much do you really need? Well, more than you think because we quickly ran out and the snack packs weren’t long enough to wrap the musubi, so we needed two half slices of nori per musubi. Which leads to the next revelation…
- Things can stick together without nori! When we ran out, we found that a viscous teriyaki sauce would hold the rice and “meat” together pretty effectively.