Few quintessentially Hawaiian foods have taken hold beyond Hawaii’s fair shores. Poi (mashed taro root) can be something of an acquired taste, laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf) is labor-intensive and coconuts to make haupia (coconut pudding) are hard to come by.
But the Hawaiian delicacy known as poke (POE-kay), a free-form raw fish “salad” is a dish anyone can make. And with all sorts of flavor possibilities, it is in demand in cities across the nation.
Hawaii’s latest export to hit it big is arguably the most versatile and appeals to a broader range of palates — (most non-natives never quite developed the same affinity for SPAM musubi that locals have, anyway).
Poke may be a dish that has been eaten in Hawaii longer than just about anything else. So what was once a staple for Hawaiian fishermen and the first Polynesian settlers to the islands, poke (meaning “to slice or cut”) has now reached mainstream status.
In Hawaii, it’s everywhere: in fine dining and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, on food trucks and at plate lunch stands. At any grocery store, you will find endless varieties.
But poke, which can really refer to anything cubed, is also popping up in cities across the U.S. It’s most prevalent in areas where there is a large population of people who grew up in the islands but have transplanted to the mainland, areas like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. Poke has even been spotted as far away as New York City.
Poke is a food that reminds these transplants of home: days at the beach, large family gatherings, potlucks with friends.
But poke has a flavor that appeals to anyone who favors fresh fish. Those familiar with sashimi and even ceviche might have a head start in understanding poke, though the flavor profiles are vastly different. (Think savory and bold, not acidic.)
Poke is still favored by some in its classic form: with sea salt dried in the sun and scraped from ocean rocks, mixed with briny ocean limu (seaweed) like kohu and manauea, and inamona (roasted kukui nut) that is ground into a paste.
Modern-day poke has taken on new life, however, absorbing the multicultural flavors of Asian immigrants who also settled in Hawaii.
Today’s poke condiments include everything from lime to ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, green onion and spicy chili peppers.
Many poke lovers are partial to using ahi (yellowfin tuna) as their main ingredient, but poke is also made with aku (skipjack tuna), ono (wahoo), salmon, tako (octopus), marlin, and even tofu or tomatoes. As long as it’s fresh, anything goes.
Chefs on the cutting-edge are creating poke you’ve never dreamed of. Besides the traditional raw form, they are flash-frying, searing, making poke patties and poke sliders.
A wide variety of condiments and sauces amp up the flavor factor with everything from peanut butter to lemongrass, balsamic vinegar, wasabi furikake, and Sriracha getting in the mix.
When it comes to poke, however, it does seem that less may be more. You still want the star ingredient — the fish — to shine through. Just one small change in a recipe will shift flavors and create a different taste. But improvisation is part of the fun.
The Hawaii chef credited with popularizing poke over the past three decades, Sam Choy, highly encouraged poke’s evolution. In 1991, he started the Sam Choy Poke Festival and Recipe Contest in Waimea on the Big Island to showcase the creativity of island chefs.
It was later that same decade that poke started showing up on menus across the nation. Chef Choy, who still eats poke almost every day, and has his own fleet of poke-serving food trucks in Seattle, says the reasons for its popularity are many. Even the simplest poke dish can be presented in a mouth-wateringly colorful way.
There was a time when it was mainly seen at parties and special celebrations but today, poke is everywhere. Long enjoyed as a pupu (appetizer), it is now also thought of as main dish material. It’s being enjoyed atop a bowl of steaming rice, as dressing for a bright green salad or nestled into a crunchy taco shell.
Whether you prefer traditional simplicity or flavors that showcase modern fusion, poke lovers say nothing quite compares to this food of the people, this food of Hawaii.