In the past decade or so, the raw Hawaiian fish salad known as poke (POH-kay) has gone from a local favorite to a global obsession. As a chef who has spent his entire career spreading the gospel of local cooking, watching a dish that is so beloved in Hawai‘i “go viral” has been heartening in some ways. But I also believe that the magic and charm of great poke is inseparable from Hawai‘i itself. Poke done right tastes like home.
Native Hawaiians have been making poke from i‘a maka (raw fish) long before Captain Cook landed in the islands in the 1700s. Originally, Hawaiians would catch reef fish and scrape or slice the meat from the bones, seasoning the resulting bits with sea salt, fresh limu (seaweed), and ‘inamona (a condiment made from roasted and crushed kukui, or candlenuts). During the 1960s and ’70s, when fishing vessels began to regularly trawl deeper waters around Hawai‘i for larger fish like ‘ahi (yellowfin tuna) and aku (skipjack tuna), the poke that is more recognizable today — glistening cubes of ‘ahi tossed with shoyu (replacing sea salt), raw onions (replacing seaweed), and sesame (replacing ‘inamona)—became widely popular here.
These days, poke is an essential part of daily life in Hawai‘i. It’s found just about anywhere people gather. You’ll see it at all types of restaurants, high and low, and sold from refrigerator cases at grocery stores and even liquor stores, many of which carry tray after tray of different flavors and styles. For me, there is no experience more pleasurable than sitting on the sand after a swim and cracking open a cooler filled with beers and fresh poke. I could enjoy that every day.
Below is one of my favorite poke recipes, meant to highlight the simplicity and vibrancy for which traditional poke is known. It’s what locals know as “Hawaiian style” poke, made using ogo seaweed and ‘inamona (if you’re on the mainland, these can be ordered online), and it takes cues from how the dish was traditionally prepared by native Hawaiians.
5 Rules for Preparing Poke
- Quality is king: As Sam Choy once said about poke, “Use the best fish your pocketbook can afford.” That means seeking out sashimi-grade fish (fresh or frozen — great quality fish can be found frozen) from a reputable seafood vendor, or at the fish counter of an upscale grocery store. Japanese markets in particular are great. Don’t be afraid to let the fishmonger know you’re making poke; they can steer you in the right direction. If you’re buying fresh, be sure to prepare the fish the same day to ensure the best flavor. Also, make sure you’re using a well-sharpened knife to slice your fish (thank me later!).
- Be flexible: While the most common protein used in poke is mild and meaty raw tuna (yellowtail, skipjack, bigeye, and albacore are all good options), it’s not the only fish in the sea. Salmon is a popular option, as are swordfish, marlin, snapper, mackerel, and scallops. Also consider precooked options: octopus, squid, shrimp, fish cake, imitation crab, or firm tofu.
- It’s a balancing act: The best poke is harmonious in taste and texture. Keep this in mind as you mix and match seasonings and garnishes. Saltiness should never overwhelm, nor should strong flavors like kim chee or wasabi. The lush flavor and texture of raw fish should be the star. Take care that the ingredients are uniformly chopped and evenly distributed. If you’re using a paste or other thick sauce that doesn’t immediately dissolve, mix together the liquid ingredients first before folding in the fish.
- Now and later: Once prepared, poke can be eaten right away or left to marinate in the fridge for a few hours. Both methods have their charms. If you let your poke sit, the seasoning will absorb into the raw fish and become mellower; taste just before serving and add more salt if needed.
- Rice or no?: Poke bowls (a scoop of poke over rice) are a common fixture at poke shops in Hawai‘I and elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat your poke with a starch. Generally speaking, poke eaten by itself is considered a pupu (appetizer), while adding rice turns it into a light meal. Chilled poke over hot white rice with a sprinkle of furikake is a classic and delicious pairing, but you can also mix it up and try it with noodles, fresh greens, or a side of poi.
Sheldon Simeon's Hawaiian-Style Ahi Poke
YieldServes 4 to 8
- 2 pounds
sashimi-grade ‘ahi tuna, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup
diced sweet onion
- 1 tablespoon
flaky sea salt (such as Maldon) or Hawaiian sea salt, plus more to taste
Hawaiian chili peppers or 1 bird’s eye chili, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup
chopped ogo seaweed (optional; soaked in water if dried)
- 2 tablespoons
ground or finely chopped toasted kukui (candlenuts) or macadamia nuts
- 1/4 cup
thinly sliced scallions
In a medium bowl, gently fold together the tuna, onion, salt, chilies, seaweed (if using), kukui, and scallions until thoroughly mixed. Adjust the seasoning with more salt to taste.
Serve immediately, or cover tightly and store in the fridge for up to a day. (If you plan on eating the poke later, taste again before serving and add salt if needed.)
Reprinted with permission from Cook Real Hawai’i by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder, copyright © 2021. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
This recipe is part of our weeknight Hawaiian cooking guide, designed to bring the vibrant and colorful cuisine of Hawai’i into your kitchen. Head to the intro piece to read more from Sheldon, and check out all of the recipes below.