Can the Mainland Do Poke Right? Do We Want Them To?
Martha Cheng, author of “The Poke Cookbook,” former line chef and former HONOLULU Magazine food and dining editor, talks about how a New York city publisher decided Hawai‘i’s favorite pūpū was for everybody.
Photos: Reprinted from The Poke Cookbook. Copyright © 2017 by Martha Cheng. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
HONOLULU Magazine: How did the book come about?
Martha Cheng: Amanda Englander, an editor at Clarkson Potter, got in touch with me after reading an Eater article on the rise of poke popularity, in which I was quoted. She had been mulling the idea of a poke cookbook to jump on the poke trend.
HM: Did she know anything about poke beforehand?
MC: She had read articles, so she knew what it was. At the time, though, they were still spelling it poké. I was so worried that they were going to make me spell it that way but, ultimately, I think they really wanted to do it right, so they dropped the accent.
HM: What was the reason they felt this was the time for poke?
MC: It was popping up everywhere in New York, and it seemed like people were obsessed with it.
HM: Is the world ready for poke?
MC: I can’t believe it took this long for it catch on, since sushi and sashimi and ceviche have already gone mainstream. But, when I reflect back on poke history in Hawai‘i, I realize that poke really didn’t even become mainstream here until the past few decades.
Shoyu tofu and sea asparagus.
HM: What were the challenges in translating poke?
MC: Ouf, so many. The main thing is that while Foodland or Tamura’s or Tamashiro’s may offer 20-some different varieties of poke, they’re really just a few sauces applied to a variety of proteins (from raw fish to clams to crabs) or vegetables or tofu and mixed with raw onions. There are three standard sauces—Hawaiian style (limu and inamona), shoyu (sesame oil and shoyu), spicy (mayo and masago)—and maybe there will be a kim chee one or teriyaki. But, generally, when we think of poke, we think of those flavor profiles. My editor wanted about 40 poke recipes, and NOT all the same sauces. So the challenge was coming up with new recipes that still fall in the poke definition, which, when it comes down to it, is really squishy. The word itself just means to cut or slice. It’s kind of like when you start drilling down on “hamburger”: usually we think of it as a beef patty between buns. But you can have turkey, you can have pork, you can have no meat at all and tofu or beets instead! And, these days, the carb-averse does away with the bun entirely. That’s what I’m beginning to find with food: The more you try to constrain it, the more it runs away.
So, in the end, “chopped” is basically the thread that ties together the recipes. And, to be honest, there are a bunch of recipes, especially the vegetable ones, that I don’t feel comfortable calling poke—they’re just chopped salads.
HM: Are you really good with it? Did you wrestle with your soul?
MC: Yes, I did wrestle with my soul. That’s not even an exaggeration. The first question I grappled with: How far was I willing to stretch the definition of poke? And related: How did I feel about the idea of authenticity in food? Second question: Is this appropriation? Does appropriation even apply to cuisine and recipes? Third question: Am I hastening the demise of ‘ahi?
These debates aren’t closed in my mind. But I made some peace with myself—while some of the poke recipes may seem outside the realm of poke, I did try to draw on flavors familiar to Hawai‘i, like li hing (translated into ume or sumac), and crack seed (translated into preserved lemon), and ginger scallion sauce, and I tried to tell stories of Hawai‘i through the recipes.
Kim chee salmon.
HM: Who did you consult in Hawai‘i?
MC: I had friends test and try the recipes and give me feedback and ideas, but, other than that, I developed the recipes on my own, drawing on flavors I love. My first job in a kitchen in Hawai‘i, I made poke every day for a year; as a food writer who has lived in Hawai‘i for a decade, I've eaten a lot of poke, and, actually, my first feature story for HONOLULU Magazine was on the history and present forms of poke. So I was pretty confident in my poke-making abilities and knowledge.
HM: Are there any new things you learned about poke you’d care to share?
MC: Maybe not specifically poke, but I was looking up other cultures’ raw fish dishes and drawing on my own memories from travels and I think it’s interesting how many cultures have them: Italian crudo, Peruvian ceviche, Filipino kilawin, Singaporean yusheng, Korean hoe, to name a few.
HM: How much will the book’s success depend on the quality of the fish the reader purchases?
MC: Obviously, fish quality matters. It’s funny, though, I would never use the best quality ‘ahi or fish here in Hawai‘i to make poke. You’re adding all these sauces and flavors that mask the finest-quality fish. But we’re spoiled here … our lowest-grade fish can equate to the Mainland’s best. Sushi-grade fish in Hawai‘i is just fish. But I do have a section in the book on how to select fish, and I tried to emphasize that you don’t have to use the fish that I specify: The sauces work well with plenty of seafood, so just pick whatever fish or seafood is freshest wherever you live—on the Mainland, for example, the shellfish (clams and mussels and scallops) kick ours out of the water. And there’s always salmon, readily available around the country, and most often of good enough quality for poke. (And it can be frozen with very little change to the texture to kill off whatever might be lurking for those wary of eating raw fish.)
The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way to Eat Fish by Martha Cheng, Clarkson Potter, January, 96 pages. Available in bookstores and online.