Hey, are you a fan of sushi? Have you tried poke? Because you’re probably going to dig it.
Pronounced “poh-KAY” (it rhymes with “okay”), poke is traditionally raw fish (Ahi tuna usually), white rice, and an assortment of delicious toppings. A big bowl of deliciousness, the Hawaiian dish can be found in restaurants all over the state, but has only really made an impact in the continental US in the last few years.
The History of Poke
While its specific creation is hazy, poke has its roots in ancient Hawaiian cuisine. Hawaiians would use sea salt on the fish they’d catch, both to preserve the freshness and add seasoning. Then they’d roast and mash the kukui nut to make a slightly oily condiment called ‘inamona (which added richness to the dish) and top it off with seaweed.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the poke bowl as we know it today started to creep into Hawaiian cookbooks and kitchens, melding the flavors and textures from those traditional Hawaiian dishes with the influences from Japan, China, and Korea.
And it wasn’t until the early 2010s that poke started showing up in the continental US in a big way.
How Do You Make Poke?
Poke means “to cut into pieces,” referring to the first step of cutting the fish into bite size cubes. The sushi-grade fish is then tossed in a soy and sesame-based marinade.
If you’ve ever had ceviche, the idea is very similar — the fish remains raw but the marinate slightly changes the texture while adding flavor. But unlike ceviche’s mild marinade, poke’s marinade has a very bold flavor, and poke places tend to add the marinade to order instead of ahead of time. They don’t want the marinade overwhelming the delicious flavor of the fish and making the dish too salty.
Once marinated, the fish goes on top of a generous serving of rice. And then come the toppings! The classic toppings for a poke bowl are toasted sesame seeds, chopped green onion, sliced avocado, sweet Maui onion, seaweed, and chopped macadamia nuts. It’s a palate-pleasing mix of different flavors and textures, all highlighting the sweet freshness of the fish.
Variety in Poke
Yes, that classic recipe above is a crowd pleaser. That being said, poke is an incredibly flexible dish with a wide range of flavor profiles. So much of the poke tradition came from Hawaiians pulling ingredients and flavors from the Asian culture they had contact with, so there are a good variety of recipes across the islands.
Nearly every kind of raw seafood can be used in poke, but so can tofu and other protein. Oyster sauce is a popular drizzle in addition to the marinade, and chili paste often finds its way into the mix. Jalapeno, edamame, and cucumber accompanies the green onion. Staying away from white rice? Why not try it with brown rice? Or purple forbidden rice!
All over Hawaii you’ll see different restaurant’s takes on the dish, and that extends to poke shops in the continental US as well. When it comes to proteins, Poke Manana in Sherwood, OR, offers eel, chicken, octopus, and scallops along with tuna and salmon. Pittsburgh Poke in Pittsburgh, PA, has lots of tasty sauces, like sweet wasabi and citrus ponzu. And then B.H. Poke in Beverly Hills, CA, has enticing toppings to finish off the dish like 7 spice, pickled ginger, hijiki seaweed, and toasted coconut.
The next time you’re craving fresh seafood, why not dig in to the poke bowl and see why Hawaii loves it.
Want to read more about the raw revolution in dining? Check out our article on crudites, tartare, and poke: