Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poke in Hawaii

Below are some outtakes from an article I recently wrote about poke. If I can get it published, I’ll include it on my website as an embedded page. In the meantime, have a look at the material I’ll otherwise not be able to use.

I recently finished writing an article about poke, which is a traditional Hawaiian “fish salad.” That description falls far short of its complexity, however, and gives no indication of its importance to Island food culture.

Poke selection at Tamashiro Market

Although poke often uses raw fish, it is a completely different eating experience from sashimi. Traditional poke, which native Hawaiians have been eating for centuries – collecting fish from shallow reefs and shorelines, preserving and seasoning it with salt harvested from the sea, and enriching it with seaweed and ground kukui nut – includes the bones and skin of a fish. Today, this old school dish can only be found in the cooking areas of Hawaiian homes, not through commercial purveyors.

Kapakahi Poke (ahi and limpets) from Poke Stop

Not surprisingly, poke has changed over time. Examples include the introduction of tomatoes and onions (an innovation dating back to the 1800s) and sesame seeds, an increase in the variety of seafood available, and an expansion of seasonings and other ingredients. It’s true, too, that poke has been influenced by non-Hawaiian tastes, most notably Japanese, who first arrived in Hawaii over a century ago as plantation workers and now comprise over one quarter of the Islands’ population. In addition, Korean sauces and South Pacific flavorings have found outlets in poke, too.

Oka Poke (raw marlin and vegetables marinated in coconut milk) from Tamashiro Market

Poke is a Hawaiian word meaning to slice, but is generally used today to refer to this signature Hawaiian food. Traditionally served as a pupu (appetizer) rather than a meal, poke can also be made into lunch or dinner by adding steamed rice and a side of vegetables.

Ginger Scallion Shrimp Poke from Poke Stop

As a relative newcomer to Hawaii, an ingredients list for poke sometimes reads to me like a field guide to the Islands. Here’s a quick rundown of some common Hawaiian words you may encounter when shopping for poke: ahi (yellowfin tuna), aku (skip jack tuna), a’u (marlin), ‘inamona (roasted, pulverized kukui nuts mixed with sea salt), limu kohu (a red, spicy seaweed), limu manauea (a red-green seaweed with a mild taste), ‘opihi (limpets), and pa’akai (sea salt used in traditional food preparation and for flavoring).

Tofu Poke from Poke Stop

Pipikaula Poke (Hawaiian salt-cured beef with onions) from Tanioka's Seafood & Catering

Today, poke is sold at any number of restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores in Hawaii. On Oahu, most seafood restaurants offer their own version of poke, and several establishments specialize in it.

Poke selection at Tanioka's Seafood & Catering

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  1. Very educational and great pictures! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I've never seen such an array of poke! From my first and last visit to Oahu 8 years ago, I had only salmon and tuna. How would poke differ from ceviche? The oka poke reminds me of 'kinilaw', a Filipino version of ceviche. The 2nd to last picture is of beef - I'd assumed that poke was always made with seafood. The evolution of dishes due to migration, colonization and other social events is such a rich topic and this is an excellent example.

  3. 5 Star Foodie: I'm glad you liked the post and the picture. Just uploading them here made me want to go out and get some.

    Tangled Noodle: I'm not exactly sure how poke differs from ceviche, but whenever I make ceviche (which isn't all that often) I marinate the seafood I'm using in lemon juice, which makes it sourer than any poke I've ever had, and use a lot of raw onion. Traditional poke is really just raw fish mixed with sea salt (which some ceviche dishes also call for), kikui nuts, and seaweed, though the ingredients that tend to be used successfully nowadays have greatly expanded -- for example, in the salt-cured beef poke that you mentioned, and also in the tofu poke. I liked your comment about poke being a good example of how migration, colonization, and social events impact the evolution of certain dishes. This seems to be true with lots of foods on the Islands. I'm going to see if I can find any kinilaw the next time I'm out and near a Filipino market!