Poke: An Island Tradition
From Luau to Pau Hana
By Wanda Adams, Honolulu Advertiser Food Editor
Poke (POH-kay) is a Hawaiian word meaning to chop or cut crosswise. In pre-contact times, the dish was likely a simple one: tidbits of raw fish (or octopus and some shellfish, such as small, whole crab), seaweed and inamona, a relish made of roasted kukui nuts and paakai (flakes of fresh salt harvested from salt pans).
Soon after contact, nioi, hot red chilies, were introduced and became a standard poke ingredient and crescents of raw onion, also new to the Islands, were added.
Until the latter half
of the 20th century, poke was a dish not seen much outside
of luau settings, or the homes of fishermen.
But as the tradition of back-of-the-truck pau hana (after-work) gatherings gained popularity, poke became a popular snack, usually savored with beer. Other ethnicities, particularly the Japanese, who had a long tradition of eating raw fish, got into the act and changed the flavor profile, so that many poke recipes today call for shoyu (soy sauce), as well as other Asian ingredients, ranging from sesame oil to furikake (a seaweed-sesame-seed flavoring mixture), ginger to garlic.
The naming convention changed, too: In Hawaiian, the word poke never stands alone but modifies the key ingredient. What we call ‘ahi poke is more properly poke ‘ahi.
The ingredients to be “poke’d” proliferated, too. A popular form of poke in supermarkets is made with deep-fried squares of tofu. And there is salmon poke (salmon is not native to Hawaiian waters), steak poke, imitation crab poke, kim chee poke, poke with mac nuts in it. My third cookbook, “The Island Plate II,” contains a chef’s recipe for a sophisticated ‘ahi poke dip that’s bathed in mayonnaise and sparked with Japanese pickled ginger (beni shoga). Can Portuguese sausage poke be far behind?
Poke even comes cooked: Celebrity chef Sam Choy made his reputation by flash-frying poke in a very hot wok, satisfying visitors who preferred their tuna seared to raw.
‘Ahi (yellowfin and other species of tuna) is the most common choice for poke, though locals relish equally the fishy, assertive flavor of less expensive aku (bonito or skipjack). In Hawai’i, fish shops sell three or four grades of ‘ahi from the highest-quality sashimi grade to tougher, paler cuts. For poke, you don’t need the highest grade, but avoid gassed fish (treated to give it better color) or previously frozen fish.
Poke is best made and served on the day the fish is purchased; left-over poke can be wok-fried the next day; splash it with shoyu (soy sauce), add whatever ingredients sound good and serve it over hot rice.