Around half-past eight, in Naalehu, Hawaii, I walked into Shaka, the southernmost bar and restaurant in the United States.
When I asked for food, the goateed man behind the bar apologized for the fact that the kitchen was closed.
“What about poke?” I asked.
That simple question broke the tension between my hunger and his schedule. With an air of relief, he waved me toward America’s southernmost refrigerated Coca-Cola case, which contained several packages of poke, (poe-kay), the Hawaiian version of sushi. It consists of cubed raw fish, most often ahi tuna, tossed in flavorings. Conspicuously absent is any acid like lime juice, which would cook the poke into ceviche. Without such acid, poke officially contains raw fish. In addition to ahi, other Hawaiian fish like ono, marlin and mahi mahi can be made into poke, as well as many other fishes, both fresh and frozen.
Hundreds of restaurants on the mainland have figured out as much in recent years, and the number of poke outlets has more than quintupled in recent years, to include the likes of Missoula’s Poke Bowl. Now there are more than 600 poke-eries nationwide.
Poke was originally a verb meaning “to cut or slice crosswise into pieces” in native Hawaiian. To this day, when ahi is sliced properly the grain is visible. Along with the cubes of fresh ahi, the original poke included salt, seaweed and kukui nuts, aka candlenut, named after the fact that lamp oil can be extracted from them. Strung onto beads, candlenuts were burned for light, and the duration of a single nut’s burning was used as a measure of time. Fishermen used to chew and spit the nuts into the ocean to cut the glare and give better visibility into the water from their boats. Over the centuries, other ingredients were incorporated into the palate of poke seasonings. First onions, then tomatoes and so on.
The poke recipe that has taken much of the world by storm in recent years is ahi tuna with soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion, ginger, sesame seeds, chili peppers, salt, pepper and sometimes kukui. But any type of fish that can be served raw can be served poke style, including yellowtail, marlin and salmon. The number of different recipes boggle the mind, tease the belly, and include the likes of spicy mayo poke, creamy wasabi with pistachios, as well as kimchi pokes of crab, octopus, shrimp and fish, as well as the popular Hawaiian-style, which includes limu seaweed, salt, and ground kukui nut. You can even get smoked, grass-fed Hawaiian beef poke, a surprisingly good poke that’s called pipikaula.
America’s southernmost poke appeared to be a simple version compared to what is out there, little more than ahi tuna with green onions and Maui sweet onions. But it appeared very fresh, with sharp edges and shiny cut faces. The main said it was only three hours old. I was sold.
I asked if he had anything with which to serve the poke. Perhaps a little …
“Rice?” we both asked, at the same time.
He reached for my poke. A few minutes later he placed a to-go box on the bar, along with a caddy stocked with soy sauce, Tabasco sauce and mayo, among other seasonings that were not as relevant to my interests. Inside the box: two scoops of rice, my poke, and a plastic dish of Japanese Furikake seasonings, which include small pieces of nori, sesame seeds, salt and particles of dried fish. Together with the Tabasco and mayo from the caddy, I was able to massage the poke and Furikake into a spicy ahi place with a decidedly Japanese feel.
I brought home a second order and ate the poke on salad greens instead of rice.
The next morning, the cut edges of the leftover poke were less sharp, and the sheen on the faces had gone flat. I squeezed in the juice from a fresh Tahitian lime from the tree out back, and called it good. Good ceviche, that is.
I’m comforted to know that when I head north to my perch on the frozen mainland, I’ll be able to prepare poke of a quality that a Hawaiian would buy, from previously frozen fish. As long as it’s sushi-grade, let the poke-games begin.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to applying the poke principles to local ingredients as well. Smoked elk poke is in the cards. Sounds like an okey dokey poke to me.