It has never been easier to get poke, the marinated raw ahi tuna that is the unofficial food of Hawaii, on the mainland. You’ll find the dish— pronounced po-kay — in Minnesota, Indiana and landlocked Colorado. There’s poke from Pittsburgh to Peoria, Ariz. You can buy poke kits in grocery stores, and you don’t even have to leave your house for it in Chicago; ASAP Poke, a delivery-only restaurant, will bring it to you. New York has a slew of fast-casual fish places. And in the Washington area, there’s Poké Papa, Poki District, Abunai and Honeyfish, all of which have opened in the past four months, joining Hula Girl Bar and Grill, Pokéworks and District Fishwife, which already served the dish.
Homesick Hawaiians must be thrilled, right?
“I tried one, and I swore never to go again,” said Sonny Acosta, 30, who moved to New York from Honolulu two years ago. “It’s not really poke.”
It’s not just that poke tastes better when you’re in Hawaii. It’s that mainland restaurateurs, bandwagoning on what they see as the biggest trend of the year, have changed it into something altogether different — something that people from Hawaii say doesn’t respect their cultural heritage. It plays into an impassioned debate in the food world now about whether a dish prepared outside its original context is an homage or crosses the line into appropriation.
Shops in Washington are putting corn in it. They’re topping it with kale — kale! They’re putting the fish on top of “zoodles,” or zucchini noodles, as customers order down a line, Chipotle-style. They’re adding a sprinkle of cilantro, or even sweet strawberry sauce. And, adding insult to injury, some aren’t even spelling the word correctly.
The concept of poke, a word that means “to slice” in the Hawaiian language, has a long history, but the poke bowl, with rice and sauces, is a relatively modern invention.
“The term is Hawaiian, but the traditions behind it [have] far more of a Japanese influence,” said Kealalokahi Losch, a professor of Hawaiian studies at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu. “It’s part of the fabric of what we would refer to as local culture, which is a conglomeration of all the different cultures that are here.”
Native Hawaiians would originally slice up smaller reef fish and serve them raw. But with the arrival of Japanese workers in the late 1800s, the predominant poke fish shifted to ahi tuna. Poke bowls with rice — a cultural mash-up of Hawaiian flavors and Japanese donburi — became popular in restaurants in Hawaii only in the past three decades, Losch said. They’re often served with minimal toppings from a smaller range of flavors, to let the taste of the fish come through.
There are a few reasons poke has boomed on the mainland: It’s raw and full of veggies, so it’s branded as healthful. And it’s relatively simple to open a shop.
“From the business side, it’s so easy to make,” said Martha Cheng, author of “The Poke Cookbook.” “You don’t need a full kitchen, you don’t need an oven, you don’t need a grease trap.”
It’s also colorful and inherently Instagrammable — especially if you add lots of toppings, like the pink-and-green watermelon radish and neon orange masago, a type of fish egg, available at Poké Papa on H Street.
But it’s this “mainland poke,” as they call it in Hawaii, that looks different from what you’d find in restaurants and grocery stores on the islands. In Washington, shops are offering more toppings than in a frozen yogurt bar, provoking those who serve a more traditional version of poke — such as Abunai, whose owner, Akina Harada, has Native Hawaiian ancestors — to call out the others: This spring, she posted a sign outside her downtown restaurant: “Friends don’t let friends eat FAKE poke.”
“It’s becoming like Mister Yogato or Pinkberry. How many toppings can we smash into it?” said Mikala Brennan, who grew up in Hawaii and opened Hula Girl Bar & Grill, which serves poke the way she’s used to it back home — simply with green onion, shoyu, sesame, ginger and chile pepper.
The option of pineapple might be the gravest offense to some locals in Hawaii. It’s already a cultural irritation due to Hawaiian pizza — invented in Canada.
“It’s absurd, because people feel like you can throw pineapple on anything and call it Hawaiian,” said Blaine Saito, 35, who moved to the District from Honolulu to work for the federal government.
Restaurateurs who offer plenty of toppings, such as Poké Papa owner Kerry Chao, say people from Hawaii who come into their shops don’t usually load up on the coconut flakes or Korean pepper sauce. For Chao, it’s about appealing to both: those craving a taste of home and the mainlanders who want a variety of flavors.
“You get people who complain that we have toppings, and I don’t understand,” said Chao, who is originally from Missouri and acknowledges his poke isn’t authentic. “Just don’t get the toppings.”
Some restaurants, in an attempt to make an unfamiliar word easier for their customers to pronounce, changed the spelling to “poki” or “poké.” But it’s imposing a Western spelling and diacritical mark on a Hawaiian word. The spelling, for some Hawaiians, is what makes mainland poke cross the line from ill-intentioned homage to flat-out cultural appropriation.
“It’s sort of the continuation of the colonization of our people, where they tell us how we should act, and how we should spell and how we should eat our food,” said Noelani Puniwai, an assistant professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Gary Ngo, a founding partner of Poki District, who worked at Grace’s Mandarin in National Harbor before opening his restaurant, said he was never trying to do a real Hawaiian restaurant in the first place.
“It’s an extra talking point for people,” said Ngo, who changed the spelling as a pronunciation aid. “Even though some people complain that we’re spelling it wrong, we never think we are completely 100 percent authentic Hawaiian poke.”
While some people from Hawaii aren’t thrilled about seeing a staple of their diet reduced to the latest fad food, poke’s sudden popularity is also causing alarm among environmentalists. The most popular fish for poke is ahi tuna, which is overfished in certain regions of the world. With fisheries already in decline, the use of ahi isn’t something “that should be spread across the United States,” Puniwai said.
Chefs in Hawaii experiment with variations on poke, too — and mainland-style poke has a small toehold there, with some wacky combinations like peanut butter and jelly — but the difference is that they approach it with an understanding of the heritage, said Mark Noguchi, a Hawaiian chef who is a partner in Lunch Box, a Honolulu cafe, and who caters through his company, the Pili Group. He’s been impressed by beet poke, for instance, because it mimics the color and texture of ahi.
“Our food, that is our sense of place,” Noguchi said. “You can mimic it, but you can’t re-create the soul of it. There’s no amount of Instagramming or Googling that will show you our soul. That’s what you can taste.”
But even as Hawaii locals bemoan the continental interpretation of their favorite dish — “Prepare to be offended!” is how one Hawaii News Now anchor began a recent segment about poke in Washington, after producers saw a taste-test for this Washington Post story mentioned on social media — some are also glad, in a way, that it’s bringing attention to Hawaiian culture.
“These kinds of restaurants create opportunities for folks who otherwise may never taste poke, to expose their taste buds to something very different,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who said she was “delighted” by the trend. She was clear on one point though: “The real thing comes from Hawaii, as far as I’m concerned.”