story by Stu Dawrs
The judges aren’t supposed to talk amongst themselves for fear the process might be tainted. This is, after all, a serious affair: $15,000 in cash and prizes, and the prestige of being recognized as a master of the art—it can all get a little tense. And so the tasters mill around the elaborately designed displays in silence, chopsticks, beer and poi in hand (the latter two meant solely to cleanse the palate, of course).
photos by Dana Edmunds
They move from table to table: Some entries have whimsical names, like Da ‘moi moi’ poke: guaranteed to make you sleep!—that is, a pun on moi, the Hawaiian name for the highly valued threadfish, and moemoe, "to sleep." Others are deadly serious in that five-star menu way, like Crusted ‘Ahi Poke with Creamy Wasabi Drizzle. Some opt for the simple (Stir-Fried Tako Poke) while others—Poi Crusted Opakapaka Poke Stuffed with Uni—are simply a mouthful.
In a few minutes, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel’s Hapuna Ballroom will be filled near capacity with a jostling crowd, all having paid $5 to gain entry to this, the twelfth annual Sam Choy Poke Contest. The price includes the honor of elbowing up to these same tables to taste the work of more than sixty professional and amateur chefs—a pretty good deal, when you consider a half-pound of ‘ahi (yellow-fin tuna) poke can cost anywhere from $3 to $5 in local markets, and has been known to shoot even higher during the New Year’s party season, when demand for sashimi-cut ‘ahi goes through the roof. But right now, there’s a hushed, reverential air in the all but empty hall—at least, until one judge arrives at the entry labeled Torching Poke. He samples, he chews, he closes his eyes and savors ... and when he can maintain the vow of silence no longer, he emotes: "Ho yeah, dat buggah is hot!"
This is the world of competitive poke, where one of the Pacific’s oldest food preparations has been elevated to haute cuisine. Or, more properly, "Ho!" cuisine.