Photo: Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

In Kauai, Poke Is an Ever-Evolving Dish Unlike Anything on Mainland America

Hawaii Food + Drink Culture
by Nickolaus Hines Jan 23, 2020

I heard music playing in the main courtyard from my room at the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu, Kauai, at around 9:30 in the morning. As I walked past pools and the Holoholo Grill to get there, I heard an emcee with a microphone before I saw him.

“We’ve got a lot of great things coming up for you all with the first-ever poke fest on Kauai,” the emcee said. “Why? Because Sam Choy said so!”

If you’re talking about poke in Kauai, the name Sam Choy is guaranteed to come up. Choy — a James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics winner, recognized for “food that reflects the character of their communities” — is one of Hawaii’s most famous chefs and a big proponent of poke.

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He’s credited with helping make Pacific rim cuisine (think fish with peanut coconut sauce, dishes loaded with dried shrimp, and, of course, poke) a culinary genre in its own right and has been called Hawaii’s culinary ambassador. But above all, and perhaps more than anyone else, Choy is an ambassador for poke. He includes it on menus at his restaurants around the world (including Holoholo, the on-site restaurant at Koloa Landing), promotes it in conversation, and advocates for it on his public profiles. He’s quick to joke and fun to be around, and the fact he’s quick to offer up tastes of true Hawaiian poke doesn’t hurt.

Yet this 2019 Kauai poke festival was the first to celebrate all things poke on the island. Here, all poke means all: both true Hawaiian poke made simply with tuna, sea salt, and seaweed, as well as interpretations brought from mainland chefs. The festival comes at an interesting time for poke. It’s been years since restaurateurs and eaters on the mainland became obsessed with this particular aspect of Hawaiian cuisine, and it’s changed significantly since its beginnings as a fisherman’s snack.

Photo: tomas del amo/Shutterstock

Poke, and fish in general, is big business in Hawaii. According to the Hawaiian state government, 71 million pounds of seafood is available to eat on the islands every year — that’s 134 million meals, or around 36 pounds per person. Around 45 million pounds, or 63 percent, of that seafood comes from local fishing.

Some of the best of Hawaii’s fish can be found at the Honolulu Fish Auction. Here, fresh tuna, swordfish, mahi-mahi, and other types of fish are sold right next to the oceans they were caught in. It’s based on the Tokyo fish market, meaning the prized big catches are sold by the fish rather than by the boatload.

People on the Hawaiian islands have always relied on fish as a dietary staple. One of the traditional methods of fish preparation involved Hawaiian fishermen cutting reef fish into chunks or smashing it up before seasoning with salt, limu (seaweed), and ground nuts from the kukui tree, Rachel Laudan documented in her 1996 book, The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage. It’s not all that different from how other cultures around the world prepare raw fish: sashimi in Japan, kinilaw in the Philippines, ceviche in Peru, tartare in France, yusheng in China.

The first written recipes for poke appeared in the 1970s, Laudan found in her research on traditional Hawaiian cuisine and language. Poke simply means “to cut into pieces,” and the written recipes gave a name to a long-used style of preparation that wasn’t previously recorded. Giving the dish a name and publishing recipes for it also widened the reach of poke beyond Hawaii’s fishing communities.

“Locals who left for the mainland in the 1960s often have no recollection of poke and when they return to the Islands express surprise to be offered it so frequently,” Laudan wrote. By the 1990s, she was coming across grocery stores with 20 types of poke for sale, including variations based around aku (tuna), ahi, nairagi (striped marlin), tako (octopus), swordfish, ake (raw beef liver), and oio lomi (mashed bonefish).

A major poke turning point came in 1991. That year, Sam Choy hosted the first Poke Festival in Waimea on the island of Hawaii. A luxury resort took over the event in 1994, and by 1999, it was a standing-room-only event. It wasn’t long before chefs and restaurateurs on the mainland started to take notice and approach poke with a “why not here” mindset.

“We’ve absolutely seen an increased interest in poke by tourists from the mainland and Canada,” says Roy Yamaguchi, chef and owner of Roy’s Restaurants and co-chair of the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival. “National media exposure featuring Hawai‘i’s culinary scene is evident today in the proliferation of Hawaiian- and poke-themed restaurants on the mainland. Poke restaurants have grown five-fold on the mainland due to Hawaii’s growing reputation as a culinary destination. Tourists now come to the Hawaiian Islands seeking out poke more than ever.”

Hawaiian cuisine spread to places that Hawaiians moved to. Hawaiian migration to the mainland came in waves, as detailed in J Këhaulani Kauanui’s article “Diasporic Deracination and ‘Off-Island’ Hawaiians.” Two of the latest waves were in the 1970s, due to military enlistment and tourism development on the islands, and in the 1990s, due to poor economic conditions and civil rights abuses against native Hawaiians. Poke’s growth in the contiguous United States happened slowly, then all at once. Many people living from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic and everything in between were largely still getting used to eating raw fish in the form of sushi in the 1980s, after all.

These historical forces and the trends of the restaurant world combined in the mid 2010s to create the current poke craze. Fast-casual, build-your-own restaurants were thriving. By 2014, the Chipotle-ization of poke was in full swing. A 2016 Eater story titled “Proof that the Hawaiian dish is here to stay” used Foursquare data to find that, from 2014 to 2016, the number of Hawaiian restaurants (pushed by poke’s popularity) went from 342 to 679. The New York Times started paying attention to mainland poke in 2016 when the story “Poké, a Hawaiian Specialty, Emerges in Chelsea” announced the opening of fast-casual poke spot Wisefish.

Turns out that was just the beginning. While Google Trends data shows that searches for “poke” reached its apex in 2016, search interest has stayed consistent since then with small peaks in the summer and valleys in the winter. Searches for “poke bowl,” however, peaked in July 2019, topping the previous peaks in the same month in the past three years.

The power of the market was likely stronger than the power of culture in the mainland poke boom. Restaurateurs don’t need to spend as much money on expensive cooking equipment, and it’s easier to train employees to scoop ingredients into a bowl than it is to train cooking techniques (though there is the added training needed for handing ingredients served raw).

Poke also constructed food in a way that mainland American customers understand: Walk down a line of ingredients cafeteria-style and point at what you want included. But in order for poke to take off on the mainland, its predecessor, true Hawaiian poke, had to be sacrificed. Heaps of grains, zucchini noodles, and ice cream scoops of mayonnaisey imitation crab are not part of the recipes passed down through generations of Hawaiian by their fishermen forbearers.

This isn’t the case on many of the casual poke places in Hawaii. When Matador’s assistant food and drink editor Elisabeth Sherman was in Honolulu near the Honolulu Fish Auction in 2018, she was given a Tupperware container of cubed meat with a little salt and seaweed. No rice, no avocado, and no soy sauce. The focus was on the tuna and all of the flavors the fish brought to the table. It seems pared down compared to the heavily adorned and grain-filled bowls common at mainland poke restaurants, but the ingredient-first and fish-first focus was the entire point.

Mainland restaurateurs lost that focus in many of the mainland poke spots that have opened over the past half-decade. The twisting of poke into a fish and vegetable salad barely recognizable to connoisseurs of Hawaiian cuisine led chef David Chang to declare that mainland poke is repulsive on the podcast “The Hottest Take.”

“It should not be eaten outside of mainland Hawaii,” Chang said. “I’m going to stand by that.”

This long history and recent uptake by mainland chefs was on my mind when I came to Kauai for the poke festival.

Before Sam Choy took the stage at Koloa Landing for Kauai’s first poke festival, I stopped by the small parking lot designated for food trucks. I chose mahi-mahi tacos from Uncle Bobby’s food truck. I briefly questioned my choice to load up on fish right before loading up on even more fish when the festival started.

Marie Henningsen, who runs Uncle Bobby’s with her husband Robert, moved to Kauai from Phoenix a year ago. They took a risk on spending a business day at Koloa Landing instead of staying at their regular stop with their regular customers, but it looked to be paying off early.

“Makes sense why it’d be here,” Henningsen told me while I waited on the tacos, “as this is the event place to be on this part of the island.”

Koloa Landing is where the island’s marathon ends, as well as where numerous fitness events are held. Today, however, was all about food.

Sam Choy donned a headset microphone and took the stage early at the poke fest. Two sections of white chairs quickly filled up, as did the standing spaces behind and to the side of the chairs.

“We started about three months ago to get this off the ground,” Choy said, referring to the festival. “All to demonstrate what I’ve been making basically my whole life.”

As he spoke, he cut fresh-caught tuna into cubes and referred reverentially to the quality of Hawaii’s seafood. To his left, Kap Te’o-Tafiti, a cultural ambassador at the Polynesian Cultural Center, bantered back and forth with Choy while opening a coconut with a stick and his bare hands, then repeatedly squeezing the coconut meat with the water to create what has to be the freshest coconut milk I’ve ever seen.

You have to keep all the ingredients of an ocean-fresh poke in balance, Choy told the crowd as he sliced and chopped, but “you can poke anything you want.” Dishes evolve and change, and there’s no such thing as a static cuisine. It’s important to note who is getting credit as the dishes change, however. Any talented chef can make a riff off of poke that tastes good, but we can’t pretend they’re making something new. New trendy dishes stand on the shoulders of old cooking traditions — there would be no mainland poke craze without the people who have poked fish for hundreds of years.

Choy’s poke he made on stage took inspiration from a Samoan version of poke made with lime juice, and Te’o-Tafiti added (between labored breaths and coconut squeezes) that poke is oka in Samoan. Choy added salt to the cubes of tuna and stirred. He followed the salt with lime, olive oil, and cubed tomato, cucumber, and sweet onions. The color slowly changed as the fish was lightly cooked by the acid. Choy reached and grabbed a bite. “Oh man,” he exclaimed. He kept stirring, killing time before Te’o-Tafiti finished with the coconut milk.

“I’m cooking, and people ask, ‘why don’t you guys use gloves?’” Choy said as he added jalapeño. “Because we’re a real cooking show. These hands make real food.”

Te’o-Tafiti finished preparing the coconut milk and poured it over the fish while Choy kept stirring. Finally, he asked the festival’s celebrity guest, Kauai-raised professional surfer Sebastian Zietz, to try. It passed the Zietz taste test.

“We’ve got enough poke here for about 20 local people,” Choy said. He laughed a little, then added, “or about 80 tourists.”

A woman sitting next to me smiled along and said, half to herself and, it seemed, half to whoever was listening, “Well we live here part-time, so two servings right?”

Though simple, Choy’s stage-prepared poke represented the crowd of locals, mainlanders who live at Koloa Landing part-time, and tourists. There were the people like the woman next to me who lived part-time or were staying in the luxurious rooms at Koloa Landing, drawn away from the resort’s three pools by the famous chef. Then there were the locals who had stopped by out of curiosity or love for chef Choy. This poke, like the ones Choy puts on his restaurant menus on both Hawaii and the mainland, is for anyone who wants a taste of Hawaii.

Still, the outside influences on poke were present even at Choy’s first Kauai Poke Fest. As a member of the media, I was part of the panel that judged the competition portion of the festival, which pitted poke from more than 10 home and professional chefs against each other. One chef made shrimp poke with small dried shrimp on top, while another served his poke on a fried salmon skin chip. The media choice winner, Nancy Koumal, used a base of sockeye salmon, and the home chef winner, Sonny Thater, made a spicy tuna crunch poke. The winner among the professional chef class, Tyson Peterson, made what he called guacapoke served with radish slices and taro root chips.

“You’re judging something that dates back before Captain Cook,” Choy said. “You might not see that here, but it’s the foundation.”

After it was announced that Peterson won the professional class award, he told me he’s seen compressed watermelon, roasted beets, and beef pokes. Poke, he said, is a vehicle for creative chefs.

Back home in Brooklyn, I searched for a poke place that makes poke like those that I ate in Kauai. The first attempt was Wiki Wiki, which is located in a food hall in downtown Brooklyn. I ordered what was called the “classic Hawaiian shoyu tuna poke.” The bowl had cubes of tuna coated with shoyu (a type of Japanese soy sauce), seaweed salad, avocado, ginger, nori, and cucumber that sat on a big, fluffy bed of white rice. It was tasty — the tuna had a good texture and size with a balance of flavors other than one sinewy bite — and the main difference between it and the poke I had in Hawaii was that the serving size of the tuna was matched by every other ingredient and dwarfed by the amount of rice. It also cost $16 before factoring in tip and the 16-ounce draft Sapporo.

I tried another, the “poke bowl special,” at PokeBowl in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. The woman in front of me in line asked if they have crab, and the chef plopped an ice cream scoop of finely chopped crab covered in a white sauce on top of her bowl. My $13 order was finished before I even made it to the register. It included two scoops of brown rice, scallions, edamame, seaweed salad, PokeBowl house sauce, shredded nori, tuna, and Kani salad (the crab and white sauce mixture). The only thing in the bowl that was cut into cubes was the tuna, again dwarfed by the servings of other ingredients.

It would be beyond naive to ask that poke be on the mainland what it is on the islands. Access to fish makes that impossible, as do the market demands of the people who are eating it. Recipes and dishes change as they move from place to place. What’s happened to poke outside of Hawaii, however, has been a rapid movement that feels like a rewrite of history and tradition.

In 2018, Aloha Poke Co. sent cease and desist letters to poke shops that used the word “aloha” to sell poke, claiming the Hawaiian word is protected by the company’s federal trademark. The company was widely called out for blatant cultural appropriation. Of course, not every mainland poke purveyor is trying to capitalize on Hawaiian culture while putting roadblocks in the way of actual Hawaiians. But, as I quickly saw, the fish-focused mentality of Hawaiian poke wasn’t there for the most part.

Still, says Roy Yamaguchi, there’s a net positive to poke’s popularity outside of the islands.

“The increased awareness of poke has created a deeper appreciation for Hawaiian food, as well as the Hawaiian culture,” says Roy Yamaguchi. “When people can learn about culture through food it often results in compassion, mutual understandings, and a connection to a place and its people. All the hype that poke has created in the world for Hawai‘i is good and will continue to be good.”

It’s important, Yamaguchi says, that restaurateurs and chefs keep seafood sustainability, fishermen’s livelihoods, and the health of the oceans in mind when serving poke. That’s perhaps never been more true than in this current era of exploding poke interest.

The band that kicked festivities off at Koloa Landing’s poke festival again thanked Choy for bringing a celebration of poke to Kauai.

There’s a fair argument to be made that where you eat something is just as important as what you eat, but the small serving of Choy’s poke that I squirreled away for myself was unlike any that I’ve had in New York. The poke was savory. The fresh coconut milk gave some oil and body while the lime added just the right amount of tart to, along with the jalapeño, balance it all out. The star, however, was the fish. While the ingredients aren’t the same as the first classic pokes, the dedication to quality fresh fish on the islands hasn’t wavered. I felt a tinge of jealousy that even in New York, America’s culinary capital, I couldn’t find poke that honored the ingredients as much as the ones here — even one made on a stage at a food festival. But then again, that tie to local ingredients is the whole point of Hawaiian poke, and that’s a flavor best tasted at the source.

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