When world-renowned chef Sam Choy describes ahi poke -- Hawaii's most traditional and popular dish -- he says simply, "It is Hawaii's soul food." He dedicated a 150-page cookbook to the subject, so passionate is he about the unique taste.
Ahi poke is as ubiquitous as crystal-blue waves, frosty tropical drinks and floral-print shirts on the islands of Hawaii. In fact, most Hawaiians say a party wouldn't be a party without poke (pronounced po-keh). No wonder Hawaii hosts not one, but two, large festivals each year that draw thousands to celebrate the delicacy.
Poke, which means "to cut or slice" in Hawaiian, is a close culinary relative of ceviche. While there are variations, it is commonly made of bite-size pieces of raw tuna, mixed with seaweed, yellow and green onions and sesame oil.
The popularity of the dish in Hawaii can be traced to Choy himself. The master chef started the
Sam Choy Poke Festival in 1992 on the island of Hawaii. In the beginning, the event simply consisted of a poke recipe contest; now there are the festivals on the big island, and they have grown to include cooking classes, cash prizes and even a golf tournament.
Culinary experts say ahi poke is one of the best examples of Hawaii's relatively new emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, because it represents Hawaii's amalgam of cuisines adapted from Asia, Europe and the islands. Fifteen years ago, many restaurants in Hawaii cooked with frozen fish and imported products; travel writers used to say that if you wanted great food, you had to bring it with you.
That all changed when Sam Choy, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi -- three of the 12 chefs who created
Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that changed eating on the islands -- began working with local farmers to increase the use of locally-grown products, meats, and seafood.
These days, at trendy island restaurants like
Sam's, you can expect ravioli stuffed with taro leaves; crab hash sitting in a pool of black-bean sauce; scallops topped with spicy guava sauce; or crispy macadamia nut lace cookies with lilikoi and mango mousse.
After their island transformation, a team of Hawaii's most talented chefs toured the country, introducing the new cuisine in various high-end restaurants.
In 2001, several chefs were invited to the James Beard House in New York City's Greenwich Village to create masterpiece meals for food enthusiasts and industry leaders. Executive chef Daniel Delbrei from Sheraton's Moana Surfrider Hotel paired up with Houston chef and restaurateur Scott Chen for a mind-boggling, eclectic five-course meal that intermingled Asian classics with native Hawaiian elements such as macadamia honey, minted papaya chutney, mangos and avocados.
To view Tracy McNamara's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here
The Island Invasion
While ahi poke is abundant in Hawaii, it has only recently become a hit in mainland U.S. cooking, following earlier island exports like seared ahi. It is more popular now because of a sudden wave of restaurants, chefs and food from Hawaii flooding the entire country.
Nearly a dozen major restaurant towns already have fast-food, fine-dining or casual concepts with themes derived from the 50th state. Yamaguchi, one of the leaders surfing the wave from the islands, has expanded his focus to include restaurants in California, Arizona, Washington, Florida, New York and Rhode Island. Restaurants like Chicago's Zinfandel and Sausalito's Sweet Ginger offer ahi poke. Executive chef Kraig Hansen at Seattle's Palisade restaurant serves Hawaiian poke at happy hour, and he says it is a very in-style specialty.
"Poke is becoming more popular on the mainland as more people learn about it. Sashimi is great, but you have to dip it in soy sauce," says Choy. "Once poke has been mixed and the flavors are absorbed into the fish, you eat it just like that!"
Janice Wald Henderson, who has reported on cooking in Hawaii for more than a decade, also notes that mainlanders are actively embracing fusion cooking styles. "There is a growing awareness and acceptance of fusion cooking," she says. "Hawaii is a crossroads between the East and the West."
Why is Hawaiian fusion flourishing now? Some attribute it to the large number of Hawaiians moving to the U.S. mainland since a significant portion of Hawaiian tourism dollars that used to come from Asia dried up.
Jeff Knight, who opened Los Angeles' Maui Beach Cafe with Hawaiian-born chef Mako Segawa-Gonzales at the helm, says his restaurant has been successful partly because of the exodus of Hawaiians to California.
In addition, poke is such a hit all over the country because of sushi and sashimi's surging success. Over the last decade, there has been a 40% increase in U.S. sushi consumption and a 400% increase in the number of sushi bars in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association.
"Americans are becoming more and more open-minded about food," says executive chef David Patterson, who works at Hotel Hana in Maui. "They seem more willing than ever to eat sashimi and poke."
Chef George Mavrothalassitis, owner of Honolulu's prestigious Chef Mavro restaurant and a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, agrees that "the success of ahi poke can be associated with the success of sushi and sashimi."
Meanwhile, seafood lovers around the world are adopting poke as their own, experimenting with native ingredients to create delightfully unique versions.
"There are lots of restaurants around the world serving ahi poke, or some rendition of it. Chef Thomas Keller does a poke served in a cracker shaped like an ice-cream cone," says chef Tina Luu, an instructor at The Art Institute of California's culinary program. "I make mine with brunoise green apple, fennel, ginger, scallion and sesame and lots of fresh herbs."
Back in Hawaii, poke lovers have even incorporated some of these new mainland and international flavors into their own unique recipes. Need proof? At last year's Poke Festival at Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, a contestant concocted a Poke Wellington by wrapping puff pastry around poke and foie gras.
So create your own version, or try the classic -- either way, ahi poke is sure to please.
Makes: 10 servings.
2 pounds fresh ahi tuna*, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small sweet onion, julienned
2 scallions, diced
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
3 cloves finely minced garlic
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce (Rooster Brand)
1 teaspoon Hawaiian sea salt or kosher salt
In a medium-size bowl, combine ingredients; mix well. Refrigerate at least two hours before serving.
*Note: As it is eaten raw, fresh, sashimi-grade seafood is a must for any poke recipe.
Tracy McNamara is a Special Features Editor at Woman's World magazine. She previously was an editor at Time Inc.'s Hallmark Magazine. Her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal's Real Estate Journal, Time Out New York Eating & Drinking Guide, and Zink Magazine. She graduated with honors from Wesleyan University and received her master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.