The Melting "Poke" Theory

December 21, 2016

A line surrounding the poke booth in Foodland at Ala Moana. It is a part of any market's everyday scenery here.

One of the rituals that I would never skip on when I travel somewhere new, is to visit the local supermarkets. Regular shoppers, unfamiliar packaging, odd-looking fruits… Just being in the space makes me feel a little closer to the local culture. There are some regulars who dart into the section and pick up their usual fixes, most of the time, the popular items which are selling fast. I spend most of my time roaming around but it is always in the pre-cooked food section. As I step closer to the counter and ask for a sample, sometimes I get a jackpot, but on other times, I carry the aftertaste of an unaccustomed foreign flavor for the rest of the day. Either way, it still gives me an eye-opening moment for sure.

If you have ever visited any of local supermarkets in Hawaii, big or small, I am sure that you were lured by the big display case full of poke. Pile after pile, the stores carry a medley of glistening dices of fresh ahi (tuna), salmon, tako (octopus), a favorite shellfish and other creative ingredients, surrounded by a line of customers. The variety is astonishingly rich in both flavors and recipes.

Too many to choose from, isn’t it? Just ask for a sample.

Poke means “cut crosswise into pieces” or “chunk” in Hawaiian. Obviously ancient Hawaiians had been enjoying fresh caught fish dishes for thousands of years. The classic Hawaiian style poke is said to be the scraps of nearshore fish mixed with chopped limu (crunchy seaweed) and a sprinkle of crushed roasted kukui nuts and sea salt. Very simple. Sweetness that only fresh-caught fish can deliver does everything. It is not clear when this now-famous Hawaiian dish started being called “poke” despite its long history. Some says it’s only in 1960s that the Hawaiian term “poke” was used in association with the fish dish. No matter how it was called in old Hawaii, the transition of this classic island’s favorite dish is remarkable to look into a little further.

Tamashiro Market’s poke lunch choices: poke bowl usually comes with some condiments, the island favorite is of course, taegu (seasoned codfish)!

People often divide poke into two categories: the traditional Hawaiian recipe before Captain Cook’s arrival and the modern recipe after Captain Cook’s arrival. If Captain Cook’s arrival is seen as a point where more outside contacts started to occur in the island’s history, then the astonishing variety of poke recipes that we are seeing today are probably a remnant of such contacts accumulated throughout the history.

Tamashiro Market's iconic pink building in Kalihi.

After the introduction of the contract labor system for thriving industries such as the sugar plantations, Hawaii began to receive waves of foreign workers from various countries in the 1850s: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Filipino…just to name a few. Not only did they support the growth of the industry physically, but their cultural backgrounds also helped to shape Hawaii’s unique food culture ever deeper and richer. Immigrant workers brought their staples such as, rice, noodle, soy sauce, kimchi, sesame oil, chili powder, malasadas, casseroles, and adobo… In the 1950s, Samoan immigrants added their island basics to the Hawaiian cuisine, followed by the Vietnamese and other more recent Asian immigrant groups.

Their staples intermingled with each other and evolved into something very unique, which is how the Hawaii’s local food originated over the years. Maybe poke shared the commonality with each culture’s own seafood dish; Japanese added soy sauce and grazed wasabi just like they eat sashimi over sweet-vinegar rice, Korean added a hint of sesame oil and chojang (spicy red chili pepper sauce), some added mayonnaise for creamy texture, others started mixing chopped veggies such as Maui onions and cucumbers to add more texture…

It was only 5 after 10 a.m. And its popular ahi pokes were almost empty at Tamashiro's!

You can tell how fresh Tamashiro's marlin are by just looking at the color and texture.

By the time the descendants of early immigrants reached the multiple generations, their ethnic backgrounds became so diverse that multiple hyphens are required to describe their ethnicity. The island’s ever-growing diversity was also imbued into one of the quintessential Hawaiian dishes, which is what we have in poke. People started using ahi, hamachi, salmon, or any sushi-grade fresh fish savored in raw form. Instead of roasted kukui nuts, some pokes are topped with macadamia nuts and roasted sesame, or even with masago. Limu invited more seaweed cousins such as ogo, kelp and hijiki. And by now, the term poke, seems to have gone back to its original usage, and anything cut into cubes and chunks are welcomed. Smoked tako, cube-shaped avocados, and tofu chunks are all made into poke.

Alicia’s Market right off the Nimitz Highway. Once step inside, there are tourists who stopped by directly from the airport on their way to their hotels, a group of uniformed army officers picking up some lunch… a truly unique place to shop poke.

Alicia’s Market carries a great variety of poke. Taco poke fans (including me) often pick up a couple different flavors of taco poke.

It is rather hard not to find a particular recipe that suits to your palate when it comes to poke. Multiple ethnic groups and their cultures are melted into a large bowl of poke mixture in Hawaii over the centuries, and the best recipes to everybody’s likings survived. They are the ones that you see at the local supermarkets and also in the high-end restaurants. Distinct ingredients, flavor profiles, condiments and cooking secrets of every culture introduced to Hawaii, interacted with each other and produced one-of-the-kind poke descendants, who have deep connections to every ethnic group and culture just like Hawaii’s younger generations today.

He may look like a haole (Caucasian), but he identifies himself as a Chinese-Hawaiian-Portuguese. She may look like a Hawaiian, but she identifies herself as a Korean-Okinawan-Hawaiian. The same goes for poke. Spicy ahi poke: marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, mayonnaise and siracha sauce, tossed with finely cut scallions and Morokai ogo. Which ethnic group would this spicy ahi poke identify with? Japanese? Korean? French? Thai? Or Hawaiian? Well, the best answer would be “I’m a local from Hawaii.”

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