Poke evolution

I was born in Honolulu the year JFK visited—and one year after Tamashiro Market opened. My life parallels the development of poke from rustic garage snack to high-end restaurant culinary hat trick. When I was a kid, my ojichan mainlined dried shrimp marinated in shoyu as he watched football and slurped his Oly. By the time he died in 2005, poke was the couch snack of choice. How did this traditional Hawaiian dish become the number-one easiest thing to bring to a family pot luck? To find out, I first went to fresh-fish mecca Tamashiro Market.

Back in the 1960s, there was one kind, and one kind only, of poke—the minimalist and pure Hawaiian version of fish, inamona and salt. When it opened, Tamashiro Market made it from the scraps left over from cutting up fish. “It was a byproduct. Now it has become the main reason to buy fish,” says Cyrus Tamashiro, second generation president of the seafood emporium (and George Takei soundalike!), with a chuckle . Today Tamashiro Market sells 30 different kinds of poke.

Tamashiro says the different permutations were the result of staffers of different ethnic backgrounds adding their own cultural flavors to the mix. Travel was also an influence. After Tamashiro’s father Walter went to Tahiti in the 1960s he started making poisson cru. It didn’t do well at the time, but as Honolulu’s population has diversified, its popularity has increased. “Samoans buy it, so now we call it by its Samoan name—oka.”

Safeway started selling poke at the meat counter in the 1970s, and expanded the varieties in the late 80s, when the chain started growing, says Wade Takenada, meat manager at the Hawaii Kai location. From then on, new branches were built with a dedicated poke counter.

Sam Choy, the unofficial godfather of poke, grew up eating the dish made right on Hukilau Beach in La‘ie where he grew up. He remembers guys catching reef fish, gathering limu and throwing in inamona and sea salt. “How hard was that? It was like McDonald’s drive-thru.” Poke is to Hawai‘i, says Choy, what sushi is to Japan—a signature dish, a culinary identity. In his new book Poke, Choy shows just how far the once-humble dish can go, with recipes that use ingredients like lobster, capers and pesto.

Choy agrees with Tamashiro that the poke evolution is the result of Hawai‘i’s ethnic groups—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian—adding flavors to the dish. From tobiko to Sriracha sauce, new ingredients have internationalized poke. Every brand name Hawai‘i chef, from Alan Wong to D.K. Kodama has played with poke, and now whole businesses are based on it. Former Emeril Lagasse protégé Elmer Guzman’s Poke Stop in Waipahu and upstart Reno Henriques’s Fresh Catch in Kaimuki are so popular they both recently opened second locations.

Henriques’s hit smoked tako poke is an example of how the repertoire keeps expanding. A couple years ago he had prepared a cooler of goodies for his visiting Colorado-based brother to take home. The cache included a container of house-smoked tako and one of sauce used to make spicy ahi. The brother accidentally dipped one in the other—and liked it. He immediately phoned Henriques with the delicious news, and a new poke was born.

Great that the popularity of poke grows—but a shame that more and more people like it as the flavor of the fish is less and less distinguishable. It’s as if shops are trying to make the dish palatable for people who think frozen fish sticks pass as seafood. You can squirt as much mayo and Sriracha as you want, but nothing will beat the natural flavor of raw ‘ahi. (I like Any Place bar’s fish-friendly sesame oil-and-rock salt version.)

Tamashiro Market, 802 N King St, 808-841-8047 (so old-school and popular that it does not need a website)
Poke Stop, Waipahu Town Center, 94-050 Farrington Hwy, 808-676-8100, www.poke-stop.com
Fresh Catch, 3109 Wai‘alae Ave., 735-7653, www.freshcatch808.com

This is the unabridged version of an article for Modern Luxury Hawaii, Go Fish!

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