Issue 7.2: April/May 2004

The Raw and the (Slightly) Cooked

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by 
Dana Edmunds

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).

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.

Before we go any further, a note to the puzzled: It’s not pronounced as the English-language "poke," like some sharp culinary jab in the belly. It’s po-KAY, OK? And no, Sam Choy didn’t invent the dish—but he certainly deserves a substantial portion of the credit for boosting its presence at the table, both in Hawaii and far beyond. It’s been on the menu in his restaurants since he opened his first place on the Big Island in 1981. (There are now four restaurants that carry his name: two on Oahu, one on the Big Island, and one in Guam.) He’s dedicated an entire cookbook to it (Sam Choy’s Poke). And then, of course, there’s the chef’s namesake contest, which has been held each year since 1992 in conjunction with the Big Island segment of the annual statewide Aloha Festivals. More recently, the competition has expanded: This fall, it will migrate from the Big Island to Oahu, and there are now regional events in San Francisco and Las Vegas ... all of which combine to make this one of the largest culinary contests in the United States.

Ask Sam about the dish, and it’s clear that this isn’t just a simple pupu plate he’s talking about: According to Pukui and Elbert's Hawaiian Dictionary, "Poke" itself merely means "to slice, [or] cut crosswise into pieces." But the modern version of poke—that is, a wide range of raw (usually) seafood (mostly), cut into cubes and dressed with a broad range of sauces and spices—draws on a recipe that is centuries-old.

"Poke is a true dish from Hawaii, like our music and our dance and our culture," Sam asserts. "I put the food in the same category as all of those."

Indeed, most historians note that while early Hawaiians regularly ate raw seafood, they rarely if ever did so without some sort of seasoning—with, at the minimum, some amount of sea salt.

Hawaiians traditionally
ate raw fish with at least
some seasoning ... but not
always: Hana, Maui, circa 1936.
(Photo: Harold T. Stearns
Bishop Museum)

"Large fish eaten raw were prepared by mashing the flesh with the fingers, a process called lomi," writes Margaret Titcomb in her 1972 book Native Use of Fish In Hawaii. "[T]he object being to soften and allow the salt or other flavor to penetrate. If the flesh [was] not soft enough for lomi ... it was cut into small slices or chunks, or left whole, and called i‘a nahu pu (fish to bite into)."

In the 1983 collection ‘Olelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, linguist and historian Mary Kawena Pukui makes mention of a dish called i‘a ho‘omelu (literally "to allow to begin to spoil"), in which certain fish—most notably the small- to medium-sized, brightly colored reef fish known as hýnalea—were allowed to decompose slightly and then seasoned with salt, ‘inamona (a kukui nut relish) and chili pepper.

And then there is also William Ellis, Captain Cook’s surgeon, who wrote that Hawaiians ate fish "raw, guts, scales and all; and use an immoderate quantity of salt with them." The scales may have been an exaggeration but, as Titcomb confirms, virtually every part of the fish was consumed—including, if one so desired, a certain amount of the fish’s blood in the mix.

As for poke proper, Sam Choy has spent a great deal of time researching the method at its source(s)—an undertaking that has drawn him along on a wide arc through the Pacific.

"About five years ago, I took the tour: You gotta start off with South America because, basically, that’s the first sign of raw fish out there—you know, they’ve got ceviche," he says, pointing to the preparation in which seafood is soaked in lemon or lime juice until it is "cooked" firm by the juice’s citric acid. "As I came around to Rapa Nui and even into Pitcairn, I found that there were traces of poke there, too: Rapa Nui was like the old Hawaiian poke, where they cut up the aku (skipjack) and then put the innards and the fish blood into it. And then, when you come around the horn and into the Tuamotus and Tahiti, you come across poisson cru, where the raw fish is also cooked with lime juice. Throughout Fiji—where a preparation similar to poisson cru is called kokoda—and other parts of the South Pacific, you find a little more Island-style poke, where they’re using a lot of reef fish.

Sam Choy

"And then, of course, you come to Hawaii, where traditional poke mainly consisted of reef fish, sea salt gathered off the shoreline, ‘inamona for flavoring, all sorts of limu (seaweed)—manauea, lipeepee, limu kohu—and the chili pepper to spice it up. And as the canoes began to run out to deeper water, they got to using aku and ‘ahi—this was the basic poke."

As Sam goes on to explain, this basic preparation has metamorphosed over the years, the bare-bones, salt-kukui-seaweed mix expanding to include an ever-widening variety of ingredients.

"It’s really a no-brainer," he says. "It shifted with time: In terms of the American culture’s contribution to Hawaiian cuisine, all they brought to the table was salt and pepper. Our backyard is Asia—if you look at the really ‘ono pokes, they’re basically like a teriyaki sauce, with the exception of sesame seed oil: Take a soy sauce base, add sesame seeds, put a little touch of sugar and then add green and white onions, hot peppers and mix it—that’s pretty much the basis for the Asian influence over time."

These days, it seems like poke is everywhere. It’s on the menu in a wide array of restaurants, from plate lunch joints to upscale Japanese bistros. It’s on the table at most every social gathering: baby luau to wedding reception to memorial service. And, like rubber slippers, "Eddie Would Go" bumper stickers and the ability to eat peas with chopsticks, it also serves as a subtle social marker, one more defining characteristic of who is and isn’t "local." Got poke? You’re headed in the right direction.

Virtually every supermarket now carries at least one version of the standard ‘ahi-shoyu-onion variety, and several have entire refrigerator cases catering to a growing and diverse clientele. And poke’s by no means limited to ‘ahi: Depending on one’s tastes, there’s everything from the vegetarian tofu poke of Honolulu healthfood co-op Kokua Market to, on at least one recent occasion, a goat poke at Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquors in Kaimuki.

This, of course, is part of poke’s allure: It’s flexible. Still, purists insist that something is lost if you take your poke pre-packaged. The first option, of course, is to do it yourself: Cast your line, throw your net or hit it down to the fish auction. But lacking that kind of skill (and time commitment), you can always track down the folks who will do it right in front of your eyes: Places like Fort Ruger Market on the slopes of Diamond Head, ‘Ono Seafood on Kapahulu Avenue, Tanioka’s Seafoods & Catering in Waipahu ... places where customers are given the option of ordering specifically to taste.

Bradley Pulice,
at Fort Ruger Market
"We don’t let the fish sit in the ingredients that we mix it with, because we feel that it compromises the integrity of the fish itself," says Bradley Pulice, who bought Fort Ruger Market (and its poke recipes) six years ago from Peter Tamada, whose family had run the neighborhood store since the 1930s. "So when you order a half-pound of shoyu-limu-onion, we make it right there for you, using fish that was purchased fresh at auction that morning."

Hideaki "Santa" Miyoshi agrees. "Like anything to do with cooking, you have to use fresh ingredients," says the chef/manager of Tokkuri-Tei restaurant, a Japanese bistro in Honolulu’s Kapahulu district that has made poke a regular feature on the menu since Santa’s New Age Nigiri Poke took first place at the 2001 Sam Choy Poke Contest.

This, though, is where the comparison between the two ends. "My poke is pretty different from the regular poke point of view," says Santa, noting that the restaurant generally will see maybe twenty orders for the dish on an average night. "Some look like roll sushi, some look like canapé; we have the one I made at the poke contest on the menu, and then I make something different sometimes, depending on what we have."

Meanwhile, Bradley’s poke chefs go through literally thousands of pounds of fish each week, thanks mainly to a legion of devoted customers who are more than willing to pay the slightly higher premium Ruger Market charges for using sashimi-grade ‘ahi in its preparations.

"We get some people who are very sophisticated poke eaters," he says with a chuckle. "They’ll request items that aren’t widely used anymore—‘inamona or limu kohu, for example. We don’t get a lot of people that ask for it, but people who know and understand the historical aspects of poke do."

This back-and-forth swing between a taste for the historical and the modern is no big surprise—in a way, it could be said that poke is merely mirroring the give-and-take that characterizes Island society, where traditional practices continue to lay the foundation for modern existence. And really, it’s nothing new: Witness the eighteenth-century adaptation of lomi to embrace salmon, an import from the Pacific Northwest that is today considered a thoroughly local dish.

At Tokurri-Tei,
chef Hideaki "Santa" Miyoshi
is using Pacific Regional Cuisine's
vertical aesthetics to take
poke to new heights.

It’s also perhaps not too surprising that the big winner at last September’s poke contest was Hideo Kurihara, a Japan-trained chef working at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel’s Hakone Steakhouse & Sushi Bar. His entry, Maguro Zuke, was a far cry from a traditional Hawaiian preparation, calling for no less than fifteen ingredients (including a marinade of soy sauce and sake). It was also the talk of the contest, sweeping "Best in Show," "First Place Professional" and "Best Poke with Hokkigai" and earning him $3,500 in cash for his efforts.

All of which recalls something else Sam Choy says about poke. Because while he sees the contest in part as a vehicle for cultural preservation—"to keep the younger generation aware of where poke came from," as he puts it—he doesn’t begrudge the influx of new ingredients and preparations. In fact, he embraces them: One of the signature dishes at his restaurants replaces raw ‘ahi with a lightly fried poke, and the recipe he chose to include in his most recent cookbook (Sam Choy’s Polynesian Kitchen) calls for the inclusion of soy sauce, sesame oil, granulated sugar, tomato and onion.

"You know, a lot of people have taken it beyond," he says, when asked how he feels about various liberties taken with the dish. "I’ve seen cubed mango poke; I’ve seen beef poke in Japan. We just want to make sure that poke gets a fair shot, you know what I’m saying? When you look at sushi and sashimi, they’re pretty much household names in the world today. But when you talk about poke, it’s still like a little whisper out there."