The Rich Cultural History of Hawaii’s Poke Bowls

Editor's Note:

Food writer Martha Cheng contributes to publications such as Eater and Condé Nast Traveler. She was previously the food editor at Honolulu Magazine, and has worked in kitchens in Hawaii and Northern California. She’s the author of The Poke Cookbook and joins us to talk about the deep cultural roots of poke, from ingredients as diverse as its people to its rise in popularity in the 1970s.

“Poke isn’t trending anymore,” someone told me recently. Which to me is as ridiculous as telling an Italian that pasta is no longer popular or telling a Japanese person that sushi is out of vogue. For Hawai‘i, it doesn’t really matter what’s happening to poke in the rest of the world. Poke, chopped raw fish commonly seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce, is integral to Hawai‘i’s food culture. It’s what we eat at almost every social gathering, from tailgates to weddings; it’s so much a part of our lives, you’ll find poke in the seafood or deli counters at every grocery store. And it’s not going away.

Poke’s origins have deep roots. Native Hawaiians have long known the pleasures of seasoned raw seafood. Being surrounded by the ocean probably has something to do with it. Centuries before Western contact, native Hawaiians would prepare i‘a maka (raw fish) and chop up reef fish (as in the striped and brightly colored fish you see when snorkeling in Hawai‘i), bones and all. They would season it with sea salt dried in the sun; limu, or seaweed; and ʻinamona, roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut. Without refrigeration, adding salt was both a method of seasoning as it was preserving, while the other elements gave the raw fish extra oomph: the ‘inamona, an oily nut, lent richness. Edible seaweeds — at one time, there were an estimated seventy types of seaweed along Hawai‘i’s coast, from soft and fuzzy to fine and hairlike to thick and crunchy — added flavor and texture.

But it wasn’t until the seventies that the dish really gained popularity, and the word “poke,” which simply means to slice, or cut crosswise into pieces, came to be associated with the raw fish preparation we know now. Poke became more ubiquitous as advanced, commercial fishing techniques made fresh, deep-sea fish like ‘ahi, or tuna, more accessible; ‘ahi’s ruby red, firm flesh is a lot more appealing than some of Hawai‘i’s near-shore fish, such as ‘ōʻio, with its gray and pastelike meat. Poke, once made primarily at home, and at a few Hawaiian restaurants, proliferated at the seafood markets, which started to offer varieties of poke in the glass refrigerated cases.

cultural history of pokeHawai‘i’s multicultural influences mixed into the dish naturally. Today, in the Islands, we still eat inamona and limu seasoned poke, usually called Hawaiian or limu poke, but it’s the ‘ahi shoyu poke that’s the most popular. This dish — a mix of raw tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, white onions, and chili pepper — gives a timeline of modern-Hawai‘i. The chili peppers and onions came by way of explorers from Europe and missionaries from America. Descendants from the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean laborers — brought to work Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple plantations — influenced poke with their own raw fish traditions and replaced the salt and inamona with shoyu and sesame oil.

These days poke continues to evolve, with Hawai‘i’s seafood counters offering endless varieties. Poke flavorings may include wasabi, spicy mayo, kimchi, or oyster sauce, and the seafood encompasses everything from salmon to clams to raw, chopped crab, shell and all. Poke doesn’t even have to be raw: cooked octopus poke is a local favorite, and legendary poke chef Sam Choy makes a fried poke, transforming yesterday’s poke into today’s fought-over leftovers. It also stretches beyond seafood these days, with tofu poke right at home alongside ‘ahi.

So poke as a trend? Not for us. Poke is a dish that evolves and adapts, along with Hawai‘i’s identity, but it doesn’t fade.