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A Poke Primer

The classic Hawaiian dish of marinated raw fish is merely a jumping-off point for a fantastic exploration of texture and flavor.

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In the past decade or so, the Hawaiian raw fish salad known as poke (poh-kay) has gone from a local favorite to a global obsession. It’s easy to see why. Glistening, cubed fresh fish, tossed with ingredients that give it crunch and lushness: What’s not to love? Watching a dish that tastes like home (at least when done right) “go viral” has been fascinating and heartening—I’m hoping that the poke wave will encourage people to step deeper into the rest of Hawaii’s local foods.

Poke itself is a great canvas for many flavors. The dish, with all its various iterations, showcases the many influences within Hawaii, including the original Polynesian settlers and the waves of immigration after, such as the Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos.

A mashup of poke and kinilaw, a Filipino-style ceviche.

Native Hawaiians have been making poke from i‘a maka (raw fish) long before Captain Cook landed in the islands in the 1700s. Originally, Hawaiians would catch reef fish and scrape or slice the meat from the bones, seasoning the resulting bits with sea salt, fresh limu (seaweed), and ‘inamona (a condiment made from roasted and crushed kukui, or candlenuts). But poke has now evolved to encompass shoyu and sesame oil, oyster sauce and sriracha, ginger and scallions. And while poke is most commonly made with ahi, there’s no need to limit yourself. Look for any fresh fish—and these days, even non fish, vegetarian versions are extremely popular.

In this vegetarian poke recipe, sweet potato stands in for the chunks of fish.

Today, poke is an essential part of daily life in Hawaii. You’ll see it at all types of restaurants, high and low, and sold from refrigerator cases at grocery stores and even liquor stores, many of which carry tray after tray of different flavors and styles. For me, there is no experience more pleasurable than sitting on the sand after a swim and cracking open a cooler filled with beers and fresh poke. I could enjoy that every day.

Everyone knows poke with rice, but how about bread? This is a riff on a Japanese egg sando with spicy tuna poke.

Think of these recipes as merely a starting point: a nod to where poke came from and all the possibilities of where it can go.

 

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