Story by Jade Eckhardt
Photo by Monte Costa
“Two pounds of the shoyu poke, please, no rice,” a customer with a Southern twang tells the woman at the Kahuku Superette deli. She asks a surfer in line behind her, “That’s the one everyone loves, right?” He smiles, rubbing his bare belly. “Everything is sooo good,” he answers, “but the shoyu’s the best.”
Although local dishes like spicy beef and ‘opae (shrimp) are popular here, it’s the shoyu poke (raw tuna, spices and soy sauce) that’s lured customers to the country market for two decades. Most Island residents claim their favorite hole-in-the-wall place has the best poke, and the consensus on the North Shore is that the Kahuku Superette is that place—even the menu on the counter boldly claims that theirs is “Da Bes’” poke. The secret is a five-generations-old family recipe for the sauce, a recipe that only owner Tina Lee and her two sisters know.
“My grandmother taught me how to make it,” says Lee. “My family came up with the recipe so long ago in Korea.” Lee moved from Korea to O‘ahu in 1972 in search of a better life. When her mother followed in 1979 and began selling the paste that is the base of the sauce the family makes from scratch, the recipe grew popular. When Lee opened the superette’s doors in 1992, she fused fish and sauce, local style. “At family gatherings we’d eat and eat, having fun, laughing and finding ways to make it better.
“People ask for the recipe, and I tell them what we mix the paste with, but the paste is the secret. No one can make that,” she says. The 65-year-old still makes each batch of poke sauce herself, usually three hundred five-gallon buckets at once. Each ferments six to seven years before it is ready.
“It’s a lot of work. We go through six or seven buckets a week,” she says, pounding sesame seeds to bring out the flavor. Lee holds up a photo of her 5-year-old granddaughter. “She lives in Las Vegas,” she says, “but someday, when she’s older, I’ll teach her how to make it like my grandmother taught me.”
56-505 Kamehameha Hwy.