Visitors often ask me – What is poke? And they say it so that it rhymes with the word joke…which is wrong but sort of cute and funny. Poke is a two syllable word that rhymes with ‘oh kay’ and it is one of the most wonderful contributions Hawaii has made to world cuisine.
Poke is usually yellowfin tuna but traditionally is made with octopus or aku which is a more oily type of tuna. The word poke means to slice – and that’s what it is – raw, sliced fish marinated with seaweed, salt, onions, and other flavorings. It can be eaten by itself or more often atop a bowl of brown or white rice – also known as the poke bowl (poh-kay bowl).
Traditional Hawaiian poke usually has salt, seaweed, kukui nuts, and not much else. Japanese influence has been heavily felt in Hawaiian cuisine so it’s more common to have soy sauce (shoyu), sesame oil, furikake (mix of seaweed, sesame seeds, and dried fish) or ponzu sauce. The most popular form of Hawaiian poke is probably the ‘spicy ahi’ which is onions, mayo, and sricha or chili oil.
Where to get poke depends on where you are. I love supporting my favorite poke spots – but I”m not going to ruin them by listing them on the internet, but I’m happy to provide a couple of great poke spots you can visit on Oahu.
The first is the closest supermarket in Honolulu. Times and Foodland both have great poke. Safeway doesn’t quite measure up but will work in a pinch. Go to the seafood section. Whole Foods is overpriced without tasting noticably better. The poke bar at Nico’s Pier 38 has great poke. Another superior poke stop is Tamura’s Liquor Stores – located in various locations around Oahu. Finally, there are a number of restaurants that offer pokebowls or poke as either an appetizer or a meal – in general, these are overpriced versions of what you get above but in a few cases – you will get superior sashimi grade poke that will knock your socks off. I prefer to stick with the markets for my poke – but if the only chance you get is to go to a restaurant – then I recommend Poke Bowls on Beach Walk in Waikiki. They’re poke is all locally sourced fish and they also try to use other local ingredients.
As far as getting great poke on the mainland – it’s very possible but here is what you want to do – get as close to the fresh fish as you can. Sure, you can get pretty good previously frozen poke in the Ozarks (I think) but it’s not going to taste as good as sashimi grade fresh ahi. There are a lot of poke bars popping up in various cities – I’ve heard some good things and some things that make me cringe in terms of how it’s prepared, what condiments are added, and more – ultimately – it’s your choice but remember – it should be raw and the additions shouldn’t overwhelm the flavor of the fish.