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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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Chef Sam Choy spreads the word of poke in Alaska, where he prepped a lomilomi salmon shooting. With him is photographer Douglas Peebles’ wife, Margaret.

Chef DK Kodama.

There’s the hamachi poke tossed lightly in a creamy sauce flavored with tsukudani, a thick, salty-sweet condiment made of reduced shoyu and mirin. The lushness of it all is cut with yuzu, crisp slices of cucumber and lotus-root chips that perch strikingly on the mounds of poke. For a version of hamachi poke that’s lighter on the palate, there’s the chopped hamachi, with the texture and richness of the fish emphasized by grilled shiitake, truffle oil and shoyu. The flavors are enlivened by a chiffonade of shiso and sprinkling of orange-flavored tobiko.

Then there’s the aforementioned Nobu ahi poke, which at first appears unfamiliar and rarefied in the dark, chic setting of the dining room. But a bite can transport one back to a potluck, a baby’s first lūa‘u, a pau hana, sharing poke with friends and family. Sesame oil, onion and Molokai ogo anchor the flavors in the familiar, while heart of palm adds a uniquely fresh nuttiness that takes the place of inamona. And yet, it has an unmistakable Nobu touch, with Japanese-Peruvian (via miso and aji amarillo) flavorings in the ahi seasoning. Lindsey Ozawa, chef de cuisine at Nobu, says when tourists ask for something uniquely Hawai‘i, the Nobu poke is usually the recommendation. For visitors, it’s a taste of Hawai‘i; for locals, it’s a taste of home, as seen through Nobu’s lens.


Chef DK Kodama is known for experimenting with new ingredients for poke recipes, such as in this white tuna version, which was a winner at Sam Choy’s poke contest.

Of course, there’s Choy, whose fervor for poke (which has also manifested itself in two poke cookbooks) has led chefs like Kodama to proclaim, “Sam Choy would be the king of poke. No question about that.” But even when Choy was in Alaska, preparing a poke sourced from Alaskan waters, with salmon, halibut, chopped-up bull kelp (a long, thick, tubular seaweed) for added salt and crunch, and a generous amount of Alaskan uni for a creamy, briny taste, he never forgets to acknowledge poke’s origins and those who carry on its traditions. “There are some really talented people in Hawaii who make poke—we’re talking before Captain Cook kind of poke,” he says. “There’s people on the Big Island, Molokai, Maui, Kauai that do the traditional style still, using the reef fish.”

For a Jackson Hole, Wy., trip, Choy prepared a layered poke. The base is ahi, mixed in traditional Hawaiian style, topped with a layer of avocado, then a layer of salmon poke. Black rice is smoothed over the tower, which is finally crowned with sliced tako. Despite all his variations on poke, Choy still reserves a reverential air for the traditional Hawaiian preparations, which is why he puts the Island-style ahi poke on the bottom of the stack: “It’s the foundation … holding everything together.”

 Martha Cheng is a former line cook who made poke almost every day for a year. These days, she writes about food, chefs and farmers.

 

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