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What Is Poke?

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Poke is Hawaiian dish of diced raw ahi tuna mixed with Hawaiian sea salt, inamona (kukui nuts), and ogo (seaweed). There are many variations. Poke is so trendy now, but we ate this often growing up in Hawaii!

Big poke platter at Pono Market (Kauai)

Nothing so nice like poke and rice!

Fresh poke case at Fish Express (Kauai)

What Is Poke?

Poke is all the rage these days, which is funny because we ate (and still eat!) poke all the time in Hawaii. Poke isn't considered rare or exotic, it's just another onolicious food item that we find everywhere in Hawaii. #LuckyWeLiveHawaii

Poke is a traditional Hawaiian dish of raw, diced, seasoned fish. There are a million variations on poke, but the traditional Hawaiian version has four ingredients: raw ahi, sea salt, inamona, and ogo.

Poke counter at Foodland (Oahu location)

The Main Ingredients In Poke

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Let's take a look at the four main ingredients:

  • Raw fish - traditionally ahi tuna
  • Hawaiian sea salt
  • Inamona - roasted and crushed kukui nuts (which are also called candlenuts)
  • Ogo - a type of seaweed. We can get fresh ogo pretty easily in Hawaii, but on the mainland and online, it's usually sold dried (you just reconstitute it in water).

The raw ahi is diced into small, bite-sized squares. Then mixed with the other three seasoning ingredients and served chilled.

Hawaiian-style poke at Tamura's (Kauai location)

Mainland Poke Craze

Poke has always been around (perhaps taken for granted) here in Hawaii. Around 2012, poke started suddenly appearing everywhere. Mainland media publications published poke recipes, television cooking shows featured poke, all these poke shops opened on the mainland (and even in Asia and Europe), and poke started appearing at fancy restaurants. It was like going zero to a hundred...poke everywhere! It happened fast (and it's still happening now, just at a slightly slower pace). 

Difference Between Mainland Poke and Hawaii Poke

In Hawaii, we marinate the fish with the seasonings/toppings. Everything is mixed in together.

On the mainland, the fish is: 1) often not marinated, and 2) the toppings are put on top of the fish (not mixed in).

I prefer the original/Hawaii-style ^_^

Poke counter at Whole Foods Kahala (Oahu)

When we eat poke in Hawaii, its because it's delicious and so fresh. But when all the mainland poke shops opened, they advertised "poke bowls," as a healthy alternative to whatever else you were planning to eat. Now all of a sudden poke was health food! So strange. I think for many Hawaii people, to see this huge, worldwide (we recently saw "Hawaiian poke bowls" offered on the restaurant menu of Paris hotel) poke craze take off was part flattering and part insulting (man the way some places bastardized poke, it was enough to make you furious!) There was, and still is, some drama over how poke has been interpreted outside of Hawaii.

Who knew right?? All we just wanted was poke and rice for lunch ^_^

Poke options at Tamura's (Kauai location)

How to Pronounce Poke

Poke is a Hawaiian word. You must pronounce each syllable for Hawaiian words. There are two parts/syllables to poke:

  1. poooooh (like "oh" but with a "p" front of it)
  2. keh

Poooooh-keh! (Not poke, like when you poke your sister 🙂 ).

Poke prepared tableside at Merriman's, Part 1 (Oahu)

Where Did Poke Come From?

There is no definite answer, but it's understood that poke "descended" from other types of Polynesian raw fish dishes like Samoan oka i'a and kokoda from Fiji.

Poke prepared tableside at Merriman's, Part 2 (Oahu)

How To Eat Poke

You eat it with rice! "Poke bowls" are trendy. 99% of the time when you see poke on the mainland, it's in the form of a "poke bowl," aka poke over a bowl of rice (or salad - which is weird!)

It's different in Hawaii. Yes, you can have poke bowls. But it's more common to buy poke by the pound and eat it from the container. Rice is served on the side.

Example? My friend Steph and I are going to get poke for lunch, and we're going to eat at her house (because many poke shops don't have seating). We'll go to a poke shop, order 2-3 types of poke (usually two kinds ahi poke and one kind of non-ahi poke like salmon or tako poke). We get 1/2 pound order of each. Then drive to Steph's house and cook rice. We keep the poke in the fridge while rice is cooking. Once the rice is done, we scoop it into bowls and eat it with the poke! That's how you eat poke.

Another way poke is eaten is at family gatherings, garage parties, and potluck parties. Guarantee someone will show up with a big platter of poke (it's not a party without poke). The poke goes on a big table (along with lots of other food) and everyone will eat it like an appetizer. You have a can of beer in one hand, and a toothpick in the other (to pick up the poke 🙂 ). It's a shared experience.

Poke bowl (with lots of toppings including mac salad and lomi lomi salmon) at Fish Express (Kauai)

"Poke Bowls"

The only times we eat "poke bowls," is when we eat poke on the spot/at the poke shop/office lunch. Other than that, we buy poke by the pound and take home. Even when we take poke to the beach, we purchase by the pound and keep it in the cooler. The rice goes in a separate container. We want warm rice and cold poke!

Poke case at Costco Hawaii Kai (Oahu)

Different Kinds Of Poke

There are SO many kinds of poke. There is classic poke with sea salt, inamona, and ogo. There's shoyu (soy sauce) poke. Or you can get a spicy ahi poke (plenty of mayo involved, but you know how we love mac salad)...

Spicy tako (octopus) poke from Tin Roof (Maui)

Then there is a whole different category of "new/modern" poke with all sorts of unexpected ingredients. Most poke is made from raw ahi, but you'll also find salmon poke, tako (octopus) poke, etc. See below for popular types of poke in Hawaii!

Poke case at Tamura's (Kauai location)

Poke: Classic Kinds

Hawaiian-style poke - The traditional poke featuring ahi with sea salt, inamona, and ogo. You rarely find this at poke places on the mainland. It's a must-try when in Hawaii.

Shoyu poke - Usually ahi with shoyu, green onions, sweet Maui onions, and sesame oil. Sometimes also garlic. 

Spicy poke - Ahi tossed with a mayo-based "sauce," made spicy with Sriracha and speckled with tobiko or masago. This is an indulgent and fatty poke. I love all the mayo, and my mom can't stand it haha. 

Non-Ahi Poke - This is poke made from non-ahi seafood or vegetables. Commonly seen in Hawaii: salmon poke, hamachi poke, tako (octopus) poke, scallops, imitation crab poke, shrimp poke, and even tofu poke.

Spicy ahi poke stuffed into cone sushi at Off The Hook Poke Market (Oahu)

Poke: Newer/Modern Kinds 

Ume Shiso poke - Japanese plum and finely chopped fresh shiso leaves. You can find this flavor at Maguro Brothers Hawaii (Oahu).

Cold ginger poke - You know that famous "cold ginger chicken" dish (similar to Hainan chicken)? It's poached chicken with a ginger/scallion sauce. But here the chicken is replaced with ahi! You can find this at Off the Hook Poke Market in Manoa (Oahu).

Wasabi masago poke - Lots of the newer/modern types of poke are more saucy/wet, but not wasabi masago poke! This one is packed with lots masago on every surface of the ahi and just a hint of wasabi in each bite. This is one of my all time favorite poke creations. Find this at Yama's Fish Market (Oahu).

Many toppings - You see all those colorful poke bowls on Instagram? The ones with a million different (always bright and eye catching) toppings? Like corn, jalapeno, mango, cucumber, etc. Those photos come mostly from mainland poke shops. In Hawaii, it is traditionally fish on rice, none of these "extras." But since poke got so popular on the mainland, some of the new poke places in Hawaii started incorporating these extras. It's crazy. Poke started in Hawaii. Then the mainland "took" it, and added a mainland twist. Then poke "came back" to Hawaii. Now some Hawaii poke has some mainland elements. Circle of life.

Poke case at Pono Market (Kauai)

Poke Recipe

There are base "rules," to follow but there's no definite right or wrong recipe (I say this on many Hawaii food posts, but it's true 🙂 ). What are the rules:

  • Fish must be super fresh! Poke is sold by weight in Hawaii, and poke made from fresh ahi costs noticeably more than poke made from previously frozen ahi. Once you try the fresh, you can never go back to frozen. Try both and compare. 
  • Poke must be served cold! Nothing worse than lukewarm poke (or poke that's been sitting too long over a bowl of hot rice).
  • Better to under season than over season. You can always add more shoyu or salt to taste, but once you've added too much...there's no recovering. Only solution would be to add more raw ahi (assuming you had extra!)

Poke at Alicia's Market (Oahu)

Once you have that down, then you can start making poke. There's no real cooking involved in making poke. It's just chopping and assembling good raw ingredients.

Here's how to make a basic Hawaiian-Style Poke:

  • Take a pound of fresh ahi. Dice it into bite-size pieces
  • Put it in a big bowl and season it with Hawaiian sea salt. Season to taste.
  • Then mix in the inamona* (roasted and ground kukui nuts) and chopped ogo. Go eat with rice!

*Substitute crushed macadamia nuts if you can't find kukui nuts/candlenuts.

Here's how to make a basic Shoyu Poke:

  • Take a pound of fresh ahi. Dice it into bite-size pieces.
  • Put it in a big bowl and season to taste with: shoyu (we use the Aloha Brand Shoyu in Hawaii), and sesame oil (I like the Kadoya sesame oil).
  • Then mix in chopped green onions and sweet Maui onions. Go eat with rice!

If you want to get fancy, consider adding these ingredients to either recipe: tobiko/masago, oyster sauce, togarashi, furikake, garlic, ginger, and chili oil. 

Poke from Alicia's Market (Oahu)

If you want to simplify things, use this poke seasoning packet from Noh. You still need to get fresh ahi, but this small packet has key seasoning ingredients (minus inamona) for Hawaiian-Style Poke. It comes in handy if you don't make poke often (and don't want to be stuck with extra Hawaiian sea salt or limu that you won't use). I went though several of these packets when I first moved to NYC.

Poke on squid ink crackers at Senia (Oahu)

Everyone has their own style and way of making poke. It's not complicated. Try different proportions and ingredients till you find one you love. It can be your signature poke ^_^

Super good ahi masago poke from Yama's Fish Market (Oahu)

Where To Get Poke In Hawaii

The below list covers the poke spots I frequent often, but you can find poke everywhere (many places!) throughout Hawaii. The breadth and variety is amazing. You'll find poke at supermarket counters (always look for poke made with fresh ahi instead of previously frozen ahi), dedicated poke shops, and poke at fancy restaurants and hotels.

Poke is a true Hawaii treat so I hope you'll eat lots while you're in town.

Poke platter from Pono Market (Kauai)

Casual Poke (to-go poke shops, supermarkets)

  • Ono Seafood (Oahu) - I like to do orders with Hawaiian-style ahi poke and half-miso salmon poke. Ono Seafood also has several tako (octopus) poke options. 
  • Ahi Assassins (Oahu) - They use only locally caught fish, always fresh. Second floor of a small office building. I always get the classic Hawaiian-style poke here.
  • Yama's Fish Market (Oahu) - So many poke options to go with your Hawaiian plate lunch. We really love the wasabi masago poke at Yama's.
  • Maguro Brothers (Oahu) - Beautiful and precisely cut ahi for the poke at Maguro Brothers! Check out the original location in Chinatown.
  • Off the Hook Poke Market (Oahu) - A newer poke spot in Manoa. Get the cold ginger ahi poke and try the ahi poke bombs (which is poke inside cone sushi).
  • Tamura's (Oahu, Maui) - A wine/liquor store that also carries lots of fancy food items and is much loved for the fresh poke counter!
  • Foodland (All Islands) - Foodland is a popular local supermarket chain. All locations have a big poke counter with many poke options.
  • Tin Roof (Maui) - They always have a new "daily poke bowl" on the menu. Mostly ahi poke, but sometimes they have tako poke.
  • Fish Express (Kauai) - Many poke (and topping) options at Fish Express. Also great mac salad made with spaghetti (spaghetti mac salad is a Kauai specialty).  
  • Pono Market (Kauai) - Pono Market is a must-visit when you are in Kauai! Make sure to also get kulolo while you're there.

Poke at Kyung's Seafood (Oahu)

Restaurant Poke (sit down, table service)

  • Kyung's Seafood (Oahu) - It's always a fun time at Kyung's. There are about ten different types of poke on the menu, including their signature "Mama Special." Come here with friends, order poke, sashimi, and Korean food. Also good here: strawberry soju slushy.
  • MW Restaurant (Oahu) - Ahi poke is served with fried won ton skins...poke nachos!
  • Senia (Oahu) - Ahi poke (with ponzu and avocado) on squid ink crackers.
  • Helena's Hawaiian Food (Oahu) - Hawaiian-style poke (to go with all your traditional Hawaiian dishes!) Helena's also does a special dish that mixes ahi poke with opihi!
  • Merriman's (Oahu) - Ahi poke prepared and served tableside. They do it the classic way (Hawaiian sea salt, inamona, ogo, sweet Maui onions), and add avocado.
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Mahalo for Reading!

Liv

Sunday 18th of August 2019

My fav kind is one with lots of tobiko and sweet onion from Maui... so delicious, wakame seaweed on the side and liberal sprinkle of furikake on rice *happy dance* we have poke bowl shops mushrooming all over Singapore too, one shop has one with mentaiko dressing *yum*

Kathy Chan

Monday 19th of August 2019

Hi Liv - That combo sounds so dreamy!!! Now I am all hungry again haha. Sweet Maui onion are my absolute favorite ^_^ Hope to get back to Singapore one day soon to check out local poke scene there!

- Kathy

Jeanne

Tuesday 13th of August 2019

How funny to learn of the poke going on a trip to the west coast and coming home with new fangled mainland "souvenirs"

Kathy Chan

Tuesday 13th of August 2019

Hi Jeanne! My thoughts exactly! I love the image you've created of poke coming back with "souvenirs." You made my day ^_^

- Kathy