Introducing Poke, The Popular Raw Fish Salad From Hawaii

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When most of us think about eating raw fish, we immediately turn our attention to sushi or its ubiquitous counterpart sashimi, and we never look back. But for the food adventurer who loves fish but tires of roll after roll after roll of sushi, there are plenty of fresh takes on raw seafood. One of the hottest right now is the Hawaiian snack turned delicacy called poke.

It’s All About the Cut

Poke (pronounced POH-kay) is a verb meaning to cut or slice, specifically crosswise. When making poke, the fish must be gutted, skinned, deboned, and filleted. The meat is then cut into the small pieces (rather than the long strips we’re familiar with in sashimi) that give the dish its name. These are then seasoned and mixed with other ingredients to make a delightful raw salad.

Respect For Tradition

A native, pre-Cook dish (possibly one of history’s greatest food puns), poke was originally a snack prepared and eaten by fishermen. Rather than cubing fillets, they would gather up the leftover, cut-off bits and pieces of their catch, season them, and eat them. This traditional food gained in popularity on its home islands during the 1970s, stepping up from snack to appetizer and now to fully fledged lunch and dinner entrée. Seafood counters in Hawaiian grocery stores have various fresh poke salads ready to serve and sell the same way that most supermarket delis keep potato salad and fried chicken on tap. It took a few decades, but the mainland mainstream finally caught on. Around 2012, poke became an increasingly common site in the continental United States. It easily hopped the Pacific to sushi-loving locales on the West Coast, and it can also be found on the East Coast and every highbrow food hotspot in between. Concomitant with the poke diaspora, chefs and other culinary enthusiasts have put their own twist on the traditional dish. Traditional poke falls into two categories: aku poke features oily tuna, while he’e poke uses octopus. (The latter is also sometimes called Tako poke, which is the Japanese name for raw octopus salad.) It is seasoned with dried sea salt, roasted and crushed kukui (candlenut), and limu (algae, or its slightly more appetizing title, seaweed). Then, the only thing left to do with poke is eat it; its folk beginnings make the traditional version very quick and easy to make.

New Takes on a Classic

Because of proximity and culinary overlap, Asian influence on poke variants is pronounced. Rather than as a salad, poke is often found served over hot rice. Such variants often feature Asian ingredients like green onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili peppers and wasabi. Of course, poke innovators are doing more than mashing up Pacific seafood cuisine. They’re also experimenting with the meaty part of poke as well. Yellowfin tuna has become a popular ingredient, thanks to its attractive color and flavor. Salmon, of course, can also be found in poke salads, as can various other types of seafood and even tofu. Additional ingredients can also include cucumber, avocado, radishes, sesame seeds and various other veggies and grains. Regardless of what you put in your poke salad, the dish is best when it’s at its freshest; you want to give the flavors enough time to mingle but not completely marinate and mix. As when eating anything raw, it’s important to use only fresh ingredients. Make sure that your meat is the proper color, doesn’t smell conspicuously fishy and has a firm consistency, and you’re all set to enjoy a delicious, traditional dish.