Frankly, I don’t know why poke, Hawaii’s raw fish salad, took so long to become popular outside of the Islands.
Sushi and ceviche, other raw seafood preparations, have long been popular on the mainland while poke has remained Hawaii’s well-kept secret. Though it isn’t really a secret there, but a staple. Sold by the pound and scooped into plastic containers in the deli section of supermarkets, it is as common as potato salad in Honolulu, where I live. While elsewhere in the America you might bring chips and salsa to a party, in Hawaii, it’s likely to be poke. But poke is much more versatile, the way you wish your little black dress or dark-wash denim were. Here, poke is served everywhere, from tailgate parties to weddings to fine dining restaurants.
The most popular style of poke is remarkably simple, just five ingredients: raw tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, sweet onion and green onion (scallion). But it is easy to see the appeal: the lushness of fresh fish gives way to the crunch and bite of the onions, the seasonings lending salt, umami and a nutty richness. Because poke is so simple, it is easy to make at home. Served over rice or other grains or greens, poke becomes a meal that feels simultaneously casual and luxe.
Here’s how to start making your own poke bowl:
Think about your fish. Or not. While poke is most often made with raw, cubed tuna, it doesn’t have to be, especially when you don’t have easy access to sashimi-grade fish, or when you are looking for a less-expensive option. You can substitute cooked shrimp, firm tofu (atsuage, a variety of fried firm tofu available at Japanese supermarkets, is terrific in poke if you can find it); cooked mushrooms (such as portobello and shiitake) and even cooked beets (their ruby color makes for a great, fake tuna). If you have your heart set on raw fish, previously frozen salmon is a good, economical choice.
Add texture to each bite. The Hawaiian word poke (PO-kay) means “to slice,” and that might be the thread that ties all poke together, because these days, you can find almost anything in it, It doesn’t have to be raw and it doesn’t require seafood. Pretty much all poke is cut into bite-size pieces, about 3/4-inch chunks, and the rest of the ingredients, such as onions, should be chopped and evenly distributed. Think about adding crunch in each mouthful.
When I make poke, I like to think of its earliest form, made by ancient Hawaiians. Whatever fish was available. Salt harvested from the sea. Limu, or seaweed (at one time there were more than 70 edible seaweeds in Hawaii). Inamona, or roasted and crushed kukui nut — a soft, oily nut.
The flaky salt, seaweed and inamona add texture, so I make sure to add similar elements in my poke through nuts (macadamia nuts work well) and seaweed (try the “ocean salad,” furikake, or wakame found in Japanese supermarkets). Ingredients such as onions, sea asparagus and tobiko are other options, and sliced wood ear mushrooms have a consistency similar to limu. I love fish roe, such as masago and tobiko, for their pop and taste of the sea. Chopped kimchi is also a great addition, adding for texture and flavor.
Salt and season well. I like to make my poke with the elements of salt, fat, umami and bite, the latter achieved through something with zing, such as onions, ginger, chile or a squeeze of citrus.
Aficionados tend to fall into two camps: Some like their poke marinated for a few hours while others prefer it mixed and eaten right away. If you choose to marinate it, taste it before serving. You may need to re-season it with more salt.
Swap the grain. I find few pleasures as perfect as chilled poke on hot white rice. But there are plenty of other possible bases for a poke bowl: grains including quinoa and bulgur, which has a fluffy nuttiness that I find a perfect pairing for poke; soba noodles or tender lettuces/young greens. You can also combine poke, grains and lettuce for a take that reminds me of the Korean raw fish and vegetable bowl called hoedeopbap.
The three most common poke seasoning combinations in Hawaii are soy sauce with sesame oil; Hawaiian-style, with limu and inamona; and spicy mayo. Sure, you’ve probably had tuna salad with mayo before, but not like my accompanying recipe, with fresh chunks of raw fish in a creamy sauce punctuated with masago.
Just make sure not to go too over the top.
Recipe notes: Reddish-orange masago (capelin fish roe) is available at Asian markets such as Hana in the District, and online. The poke mixture can marinate in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.
1 pound fresh tuna, preferably sashimi-grade, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (see OVERVIEW)
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallion greens (crosswise; from 3 or 4 scallions)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup capelin fish roe (masago; see OVERVIEW)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Sriracha
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
Combine the tuna, scallion greens, mayo, fish roe, Sriracha, soy sauce and salt in a mixing bowl. Fold gently until thoroughly blended.
The poke is ready to eat, but it can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day. (If you plan to eat it later, taste for salt before serving.)
Serve in bowls.
Cheng is a writer and editor based in Hawaii.
The recipe is adapted from her “The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way to Eat Fish” (Clarkson Potter, 2017).
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Calories: 240; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 65 mg; Sodium: 580 mg; Carbohydrates: 3 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 2 g; Protein: 29 g.