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What’s the Deal with Poke?

How the Hawaiian dish made its way into mainstream culture, and why one chef wants to do it right

Photos by Cole Giordano
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Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is the bowl of the moment. Like so many kinds of cuisines before it, from Mexican to Mediterranean, the traditional Hawaiian dish has made its way into mainstream fast-casual restaurants. And let’s face it — those living far from the beaches of Hawaii, in cities like New York and Chicago, are especially hungry for a taste of the tropical.

Fast-casual poke tends to come with a variety of colorful sauces, piles of crunchy toppings, and a slew of bases, from rice to lettuce to kale noodles. But just like a burrito at a chain isn’t representative of all Mexican cuisine, not all poke bowls are exactly what you’d find in Hawaii. What is poke all about, and how do you recognize the real thing?

“In Hawaii, poke is a way of life,” says Lee Anne Wong, a Top Chef alum and the head chef at Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu as well as the consultant at New York poke spot, Sweetcatch Poke. “What you see across the country has been adapted for the American palette.”

Wong grew up in New York City, but she permanently relocated to Hawaii in 2013, a place she calls “precious” for all the beauty and culture it has to offer. Before departing New York, Wong opened Sweetcatch in response to poke’s growing popularity in her hometown. These days, whether she’s cooking at her island paradise or hustling in New York’s food scene, Wong remains a fierce champion of Island-style cuisine and a discerning poke professional.

The history of Hawaiian poke, which dates back to pre-colonial, Polynesian times, is actually quite straightforward. Poke literally means “to cut crosswise into pieces” in Hawaiian language. Early Hawaiians fished when they were hungry, and the catch of the day made for the perfect sustenance because it was indigenous and fresh. “Ancient Hawaiians used the ocean as their icebox,” Wong says. They took what they caught that day, sliced it, tossed with sea salt, and a little ogo (fresh seaweed).” Poke then evolved from that first rendition. “Flash forward to the 1970s and you’re looking at Sam Choy and the earliest forms of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, and raw fish becomes trendy to eat again,” Wong explains.

Today, the fresh, easy dish remains ubiquitous on the islands. Someone brings it to every social gathering as a side or a pupu (appetizer). The Hawaii grocery store’s equivalent to a deli counter is a poke counter, where customers can line up for ahi tuna, marlin, or octopus. Wong’s favorite poke spot is Ono Seafood in Honolulu, a modest, no-fuss spot with a big parking lot and picnic tables out front. Here, you might order ¼ of a pound of ahi (you order poke by weight in Hawaii) and a side of kimchi or a green tea beverage. For a dollar more, add rice — and sorry, but there’s no avocado here.

For Wong, the delicate balance at Sweetcatch is to serve customers the “make your own bowl” variety they crave, while keeping the focus on quality fish. That means avoiding the frozen, gassed seafood that some restaurants serve to keep costs low, and instead pre-marinating fresher cuts in a salty shoyu (or soy) sauce. Pre-marinating allows the fish to cure, which firms up the texture and adds flavor. “Think of it as a Hawaii-style ceviche, except we’re using Hawaiian sea salt,” rather than the citrus of ceviche, Wong explains.

Wong is happy to call herself a poke traditionalist. In addition to hiring former sushi chefs as her fish butcher and executive chef at Sweetcatch, she believes that poke should be made with fish as fresh and as sustainably caught as possible. Beyond the fish itself, Wong infuses authentic flavors wherever she can. For example, you’ll only find one mayonnaise-based sauce on the menu at Sweetcatch, since too much mayonnaise masks the flavor and texture of the fish. The other sauces, like ginger-dashi and Saikyo Miso, are Wong’s creations inspired by Hawaiian flavors. “I’m the purist. It’s been hard to adjust, but I’m like, ‘Can we not put the toppings all over the poke?’ At least plate it a little differently so people can see the poke.”

Lee Anne Wong at Sweetcatch Poke.
Bobby Kwak

By straddling the New York food scene and the longstanding traditions of Hawaiian food and culture, Wong plays a part in the longevity and sustainability of Hawaiian food — but she’s not alone. She says the youngest generation of Hawaiian chefs is “killing it” with the ingredients they have at their disposal, like pahole fern and kukui nut, favorites of Wong’s. “You’re seeing this renaissance of Hawaii ingredients now,” she says. Wong hopes her two restaurants will celebrate and propel those traditions forward. “Island-style cuisine is about the culture and the history of what we’re able to use right here. Two thousand miles in any direction, there’s nothing. If the boats and the planes stop coming tomorrow, what are we going to feed ourselves?”

Wong sees that limitation as a golden opportunity. “There are things that grow here [in Hawaii] that I can’t find anywhere else on the planet. I’ve traveled the world and cooked all over the world, and I lived in New York all my life. So to come here and to taste a new variety of banana, as a person and as a chef, it’s so invigorating and inspiring.” Get your own island inspiration from what Wong calls the “perfect poke bowl” and keep an eye out for similar authentic flavors on your next lunch run. For those craving a taste of Hawaii, poke is just the beginning.

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