Barbara Funamura, creator of Spam musubi, dies at 78

Barbara Funamura with her granddaughter Justice Funamura-Sasil in a 2002 photograph. Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island

Barbara Funamura with her granddaughter Justice Funamura-Sasil in a 2002 photograph. Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island
Barbara Funamura with her granddaughter Justice Funamura-Sasil in a 2002 photograph. Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island

POIPU, Kaua‘i — When Barbara Funamura created the first Spam musubi, she had no idea how popular it would become.

“There are Spam musubi everywhere,” said Dan Funamura, Barbara Funamura’s husband. “It all started at Joni-Hana more than 30 years ago.”

Barbara Funamura passed away at the age of 78 on May 12 at her home.

She was described as a nutritionist, entrepreneur, and the originator of the Spam musibi.

“The first one was triangular with Spam in it,” Dan said. “It sold really well from Joni-Hana at the Kukui Grove Center. There were the training people from Honolulu who were working with Foot Locker and the Sears store. They all came in and were laughing about it, but within a year, it was all over the state.”

What was the secret?

“Spam and rice, two local favorites, are combined in an enormous musubi (rice ball) wrapped in nori (sheets of dried seaweed),”

Barbara Funamura was quoted in The Garden Island newspaper in 1983. “That’s the Spam musubi.”

The original form was triangular to differentiate it from the musuburrito, a similar rice-and-chorizo musubi which was inspired by a suggestion from Stanley Funamura, one of the Funamura sons.

Dan said eventually the Spam musubi and the makizushi were made using a box, morphing it into its now familiar shape.

The box was a contribution from one of the workers, Matsuno Matsumoto-Kaohi, who brought it in to work, one day.

“Barbara saw it and recognized that it was the way to go,” Dan said. “The sushi would come out all uniform, and it just happens that it fits two slices of Spam side by side. Once the kids learned how to use it, everything would come out uniform. But it was a flimsy thing made out of quarter-inch plywood.”

At that time, Dan was working at the NASA tracking station in Koke‘e.

“We had lots of wood up there, and there even was a shop,” he said. “We got some pieces of koa and Junior Arruda fashioned the one-piece box with a cover press. Even now, there are molds you can buy made from plastic. But, there is one thing wrong — it has a handle. You’re not supposed to pull it.”

Dan said Barbara graduated from Colorado State with a degree in food sciences and nutrition and went on to Ames, Iowa for post-graduate study in institutional management.

“Her first job was as an extension agent at the University of Hawai‘i,” Dan said. “She traveled all over, and when she came home, she was an extension agent until the kids came.”

When she started working after raising the kids, she became the first food supervisor for the Meals on Wheels program before joining Big Save as a supervisor for the Kauai Kitchens. When Grove Farm opened up the Kukui Grove Center mall, she was a good manager and signed up for the spot where Joni-Hana would emerge, Dan said.

“She recognized the potential of that space for food service,” he said. “Eventually, the location was sold, but Barbara was very innovative and went back to Kauai Community College where she studied carpentry and drafting.”

She did not know too much about computers, but even took Auto CAD, he said.

“We had a house in Wailua that she drew out on a drafting table,” Dan said. “Joni’s house, Barbara designed using Auto CAD, and she and I built it.”

Dan said one of Barbara’s greatest desires was to visit the capitols in each of the 50 states, and she did.

“She loved to travel,” he said. A celebration of Barbara’s life is scheduled for June 18 at the West Kauai Hongwanji Mission, Hanapepe Temple.

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