Poke: Past and Present

For locals, few things say “home” as much as poke. Here’s the story of the evolution of this quintessential Hawaii food.


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Sam Choy calls poke “the king of Island foods.” He’s been fascinated by the
evolution of this food since his childhood on Oahu, and as a professional chef, he has shared poke recipes around the world.

About 50 years ago Sam Choy and family friends threw a net into Hukilau Bay and ended up catching a few moi. His mom’s friend decided they would make poke, so they sent him to pick limu manauea from the river mouth. Then they had him dig kukui nuts out from the ashes where they’d been roasted, cracking the hard shells and taking out the meat, while the adults scaled and gutted the moi, sliced them crosswise—“poke” cuts—bones and all. They seasoned the fish with salt harvested from the ocean, threw in the chopped limu and sprinkled the crushed kukui nut (inamona) over it all. After letting the mixture sit for a moment so the flavors would meld, Choy recalls, “I took a mouthful of it and went ‘wow’… Right at that moment, I knew that this was my love. Something as natural and pure as taking a fish out of the water, creating some magic with it.”


The competition lines up at Sam Choy’s annual poke competition.
Whether it was the work he had put into creating that bowl of poke, the romance of the setting—sitting on the beach with friends and family—or the natural appeal of fresh, just-caught fish paired with the crunch of seaweed, that moment sparked Choy’s passion, one that would influence the future of poke.

What Choy had that afternoon was similar to the type of raw-fish mixtures Hawaiians had made in pre-Capt. James Cook days. In poke lore, preparations fall on two sides of a timeline, separated by Cook’s arrival to the Islands. (However, food historians debate when people actually began using the word “poke” to represent the fish dish; in her book The Food of Paradise, Rachel Laudan posits that it might have been as late as the 1960s, obviously much later than Cook’s arrival). Originally, “poke” was simply a Hawaiian word meaning “to cut crosswise into pieces.” As such, even now, it makes the definition of poke in culinary terms a little hard to pin down; while it may have been inspired by raw fish, poke these days doesn’t have to be, thanks to cooked tako poke recipes and Choy’s popularization of fried poke. Nor does it necessarily include seafood; Choy’s current favorite pokes include avocado poke and tofu poke. Even the familiar cube shape doesn’t cast a net wide enough to capture all poke variations. Take oio poke (sometimes also known as oio lomi), in which oio (bonefish) meat is scraped off the bones and seasoned, resembling a thick paste. Still, mention poke to most people, and what comes to mind are seasoned cubes of raw fish, just as when one talks of a hamburger, everyone envisions a beef patty between a bun, not a veggie burger or a fish burger or a turkey burger.


Ahi poke and avocado stack from Alan Wong.
While Choy sat on the beach eating Hawaiian-style poke, in homes around the island people were adding their own touches to pre-Cook-style poke. Alan Wong remembers his mother’s poke: “My mom is from Japan, so when she made poke it was kind of Japanese flavored,” he says. “She knew all about sashimi and sushi but she learned poke when she came to Hawaii.” Japanese cooks, with their affinity for raw fish, added shoyu to cubes of ahi and, somewhere along the way, sesame oil, green onions, onions and chilies made it into the mix via other ethnicities.

DK Kodama has no romantic memory of his first time eating poke, simply that “we grew up with poke, of course,” he says. “Whenever we got tuna, we mixed it up with all different kinds of ingredients. We had shoyu poke, we had limu poke. My mom would make it. My grandmother would make it.”

In the ’70s, when Choy, Kodama and Wong were growing up, most of the poke was still being mixed in home kitchens, but it also started to appear in supermarkets. This helped build momentum for a trend that would put poke in every tailgate party and potluck, at the heart of every social gathering in Hawaii.


Chef Alan Wong.
Its explosion in popularity and rise as a culinary icon has made poke Hawaii’s hamburger, another foodstuff that began with humble origins and has taken on a cultural identity, whether enjoyed in a backyard or in a restaurant. Hamburger’s earliest iteration was chopped, too; leftover chopped beef between sliced bread. From there, they have run a similar path: Hawaii’s increasing accessibility to fresh fish (at least deep-ocean fish like ahi) fueled a steady supply of poke, calling to mind the rise of cheap beef, which encouraged the consumption of meat and hamburgers. Home cooks in Hawaii experimented with poke for potlucks, while cooks on the Mainland tinkered with hamburgers at backyard BBQs. Tailgate parties where youth and a veritable buffet of poke are on display echo the diner culture of the ’40s and ’50s on the Mainland.

In 1991, poke was launched onto a public stage when Choy started his poke contests. These contests gave home cooks and professional chefs alike venues in which to showcase recipes that ranged from pre-Cook styles (like one combination of wana [sea urchin] with opihi, limu kohu and inamona) to New Wave (i.e. Asian and Mediterranean-style ehu [short-tailed red snapper] and mango poke)—a display of the directions poke had gone since Choy’s seminal poke experience some 30 years before. If McDonald’s was the institution that spread the gospel of the hamburger, then Choy was poke’s ambassador, both locally with his poke contests, and abroad, never failing to demonstrate poke when traveling.

Both poke and the hamburger made the leap to fine dining; by the early ’90s, poke had ridden the wave of Hawaii Regional Cuisine to white-tablecloth preparations. It was a natural jump. The generation of chefs that grew up eating poke couldn’t resist putting their own touches to it. Now, Daniel Boulud’s burger in New York filled with red-wine-braised short ribs and black truffle for $32 is matched by Nobu Waikiki’s $19 ahi poke topped with heart of palm.
 

Of all the uniquely Hawaiian dishes, poke is perhaps the perfect canvas for professional high-end kitchens. The freshest fish has a natural sweetness to it, and it doesn’t hurt that poke, its translucent cubes of fish mixed with a touch of oil, glistens appetizingly (compared to squid luau, which, though Choy loves, he admits looks like “cow turds”). While at one time poke may have been made from fish scraps and leftovers, this pupu’s journey to the fine-dining table now incorporates the choicer cuts of fish and the most sophisticated ingredients.


The Honolulu Fish Auction is the only fresh tuna auction of its kind in the U.S. Large fish are sold separately, rather than by the boatload.
For Wong, poke on his menu is representative of a deliberate effort to evoke a sense of place. “What I like to do is take what the local people like to eat, put it on the menu,” he says. “But we’re not a Hawaiian restaurant, we’re not an ethnic restaurant. We take something old and we make it new. We give it a twist. Yet it’s grounded in something solid. And that’s why I like to have poke on the menu, poke being a big part of our local culture.”

Wong notes that poke is “not just a Hawaiian thing, it’s a local thing with all different ethnic groups. If you grew up in Hawaii you love to eat poke.” He serves poke at both his restaurants on Oahu: at The Pineapple Room, it’s a simple preparation with ahi, shoyu, sesame oil, green onions and white onions, with a touch of heat, while at the original Alan Wong’s, the arrangements are a little more fanciful. There’s the ahi poke and avocado salsa stack, the red and green layers sitting on top of crispy won ton strips and lightly flavored with spicy aioli and wasabi soy sauce. The effect is an upscale chip dip—creamy and crunchy, fresh and buttery from the avocado and tuna.


Fresh moi, like these at Tamashiro Market, can be used for poke and sashimi.
At the moment, Wong and his chefs are playing with a new take on ahi poke, a tuna pâté. They take poke and sautée half of it, leave the other half raw, and purée it into a paste. Wong might experiment with whatever fish comes in fresh, like moi or butterfish raised on the Big Island, both of which he finds make excellent poke. At one time, Wong made a poke with uhu (speckled parrotfish) seasoned only with Hawaiian salt and the uhu’s liver, mashed up and mixed in with the meat. “It’s like eating opihi or uni (sea urchin) with the fish,” Wong recalls. “It tastes like the ocean, very rich, and it requires a fresh fish, otherwise it’d be pretty gross.”
 

At Sansei restaurants, it was only natural that poke would find its way to Kodama’s sushi bars, where he plays fast and loose with poke ingredients, like combining white tuna with Japanese shichimi (a spice blend) and yukke (Korean chili), a combination that won at Sam Choy’s poke contest one year. But always, “The ingredients have to match the fish,” Kodama says. “It’s like pairing food and wine together. The wine and the food have to match together and then it’ll come out really beautiful, as far as flavor goes. Bitterness, nothing, just good flavor. And it just keeps you wanting more.”

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