Sun, surf and Spam in Hawaii

In the cramped parking lot of a small strip mall, drivers jockey for spaces. Many have made the 20-minute trip from Honolulu, their mouths watering in anticipation of chowing down on a popular food unique to Hawaii.

The customers will have to put their taste buds on hold a bit longer. The line at Tanioka's Seafoods and Catering stretches out the door.

Inside, about 20 people patiently wait, many engaged in friendly chitchat, as they slowly make their way toward the counter.

Despite the carryout restaurant's name, the regulars don't crave sushi as much as they do a similar food called musubi. More often than not, the main ingredient isn't raw fish; it's Spam.

The canned, preserved combination of spices and ham originated in the 1930s in Austin, Minn., and made its way to the islands during World War II as a ration for GIs. A staple of many pantries, Spam remains wildly popular with island residents.

The Aloha State ranks first in U.S. Spam sales. Hawaiians consume more than 7million cans of the stuff each year. Locals jokingly call it "the Hawaiian steak."

At breakfast, lunch and dinner, visitors frequently find Spam on the menu, regardless of whether they're eating fast food or dining in an upscale restaurant.

Most often, a slab of the pink meat is consumed in musubi, the dish for which Tanioka's is famous.

"We've probably sold 5 million Spam musubi over the years," manager Justin Tanioka said.

"People come from all over Oahu, plus Japan, Korea and the (U.S.) mainland."

Tanioka, 36, grew up surrounded by Spam. His parents, Mel and Lynn, founded the carryout and catering business a month after he was born.

The family's musubi has received a bounty of accolades and awards.

At lunchtime in the restaurant's kitchen, Mary Ann Pagal deftly assembles the simple ingredients while hustling to keep ahead of orders from hundreds of customers. Packing 20 cakes of compacted, sticky rice on a tray, she then tops each with a slice of teriyaki-simmered Spam before wrapping the meat-and-rice combination in nori, a thin sheet of Japanese seaweed.

Most days, Pagal and her co-workers are so efficient that the musubi, pronounced moo-soo-BEE, is still warm when it reaches the front counter.

Though Hawaiians flock to Tanioka's for the $1.50 Spam musubi, it also is available at countless other places throughout the islands, including the ubiquitous convenience stores.

Having grown up on Oahu, President Barack Obama apparently is among the legions of Hawaiians who have acquired a taste for Spam musubi.

While vacationing on the island, he was seen ordering two of them from the snack shack at Olomana Golf Club in Waimanalo.

Yet another East-meets-West food, Spam bento is a popular appetizer at celebrity chef Sam Choy's Kai Lanai restaurant in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island.

The menu describes the dish as a "bed of rice with teriyaki beef, fried chicken, marinated fish, egg and Spam." It's priced at $14.

Choy, the author of several cookbooks on Hawaiian cuisine, earned the nickname "The Spam Man" after network TV appearances in which he created dishes including the canned meat.