What do croissants and Thai iced coffee have in common? Sure, the two would make a nice start to the day, but here’s another surprising similarity: They were both products of military occupation.
The concept of war brings to light an interesting paradox. It stems out of fierce conflict between two countries clashing against one another, but often as a result of their close encounters, long-lasting traditions take shape. In a scenario where basic sustenance is of the utmost importance, it makes sense that the most obvious examples of this cultural sharing translates to food.
Such is the reason you might see a Korean stew mixed with pre-cooked meat products like Spam, or Tex-Mex taco seasoning sprinkled over rice in the Pacific Islands. But not all wartime foods are hybrid forms: some dishes arise as a response to rationing, or a sudden inability to access certain ingredients. While these relics are reminders of a violent past, they also remain firmly embedded in contemporary food traditions. From Korean-inspired sushi to a sweet Thai beverage, here are foods that lived on after the violence died down.
Created: Around U.S. military bases near Seoul, South Korea, during the Korean War (1950-1953)
What it is: A thick stew with pieces of pre-cooked meat products like hot dogs, Spam, or ham that’s been made spicy with Korean gochujang and kimchi. It often includes instant noodles, as well as fresh vegetables like garlic, scallions, and mushrooms, and slices of American cheese.
The backstory: Budae jjigae, which literally means “army stew” in Korean, originated during wartime when food was scarce; military personnel made the dish by combining leftovers from U.S. Army facilities, like Spam and American cheese, with whatever foods were readily available. It remains popular today and can be found at places like Roy Choi’s POT. (Photo: Jo Del Corro/Flickr)
Created: In the 1600s by bakers in Vienna, Austria, to celebrate repelling an invasion by the Ottoman Empire—depending on which version of the story you believe
What it is: A rolled, crescent-shaped pastry constructed out of layers of butter and dough, creating a flaky, airy texture
The backstory: The origin of the croissant is hotly contested. According to one legend, it was created in the shape of the Islamic crescent by the Franks to celebrate the defeat of the Umayyad at the Battle of Tours in 732; by another account, it was invented in what is now modern-day Budapest. But one of the most popular stories is that it was created at night by bakers in Vienna in the late 17th century—a backstory that remains a sensitive subject in modern times. (In 2013 Syrian rebels, claiming the pastry celebrates European victory over Muslims, banned croissants in the city of Aleppo.) (Photo: Ken Hawkins/Flickr)
Created: In 1984 by Matsuzo Gibo near Camp Hansen in Kin Town, Okinawa
What it is: Taco-flavored ground beef served on a bed of rice, typically dressed with lettuce, tomato, salsa, and shredded cheese
The backstory: Long before Chipotle’s burrito bowls dominated the world, the Okinawans had taco rice. The dish—a mash-up of American and Japanese cuisines—evolved out of army surplus Tex-Mex taco seasoning and Japanese rice. It first appeared on the menu at King Tacos and Parlor Senri, two cafes located just outside the main gate of Camp Hansen, a U.S. Marine Corps base. It became a common meal choice among American GIs in the 1980s, and in the years since, has become so popular that that it’s even been known to be on offer at KFC, Yoshinoya, and other fast-food chains in the region. (Photo: t-mizo/Flickr)
Created: In Korea during the Japanese occupation, between 1910-1945
What it is: Steamed rice that’s been seasoned with salt and sesame oil, then filled with fish, meat, eggs, and/or vegetables, rolled in sheets of dried seaweed, and sliced into cylindrical pieces
The backstory: Under Japanese rule, Koreans adopted both Western food and drink like beer and bread, as well as Japanese food items. One example of the latter was gimbap (literally translated as “seaweed rice”), a variation of Japanese futomaki that’s made made with steamed rice dressed with sesame oil rather than Japanese-style vinegared rice. (Photo: Manda_Wong/Flickr)
Created: At London’s Savoy Hotel in April 1941
What it is: A dish of diced root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and turnip, cooked in a thickened sauce of rolled oats, vegetables, and scallions, then topped with potato pastry and grated cheese
The backstory: This dish, sometimes referred to as Lord Woolton pie, might have a regal-sounding name, but that’s where the glamour ends. Woolton pie was created by The Savoy’s chef de cuisine, Francis Latry, as a way to feed customers during the Second World War when many types of food, especially meat, were heavily rationed. He named the vegetarian dish after Lord Woolton, the country’s then-Minister of Food. (Photo: autumnroseuk/Flickr)
Goya Chanpuru With Spam
Created: In Okinawa, most likely near a military base during World War II
What it is: A stir-fry dish of bitter melon, firm tofu, Spam, and vegetables that’s native to the Okinawan Islands.
The backstory: In Okinawan, the word chanpuru translates to “something mixed.” This can refer to two things: the Islanders’ openness to the outside world, as well as a stir-fry dish that’s the quintessential dish of Okinawa. There are several common types of chanpuru, but one of the most popular is goya chanpuru, named after a bitter melon that’s the star of the dish. Goya chanpuru has been a culinary staple in Okinawa for centuries, but the addition of Spam didn’t come along until World War II, when the U.S. military sent some 100 million pounds of Spam to soldiers stationed overseas. (Photo: Miyo Sekimoto/Flickr)
Thai Iced Coffee
Created: In the mid-1900s near American military bases in Thailand
What it is: Concentrated coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and ice.
The backstory: Thick, sticky sweetened condensed milk made its way to Thailand in the mid-1900s via American officials stationed at military bases in Thailand. Locals quickly embraced the stuff, adding it to coffee on ice for a refreshing warm-weather treat. (Photo: BitesnBrews)