POKE (RHYMES WITH OKAY) is a raw, marinated fish salad similar to sashimi, fish tartare, fish carpaccio and Peruvian ceviche. Derived from the Hawaiian word meaning to cut crosswise into small pieces, poke is a ubiquitous side dish at native Hawaiian gatherings—sort of a super-cool, tropical cousin to coleslaw at a rib roast.
A hot, humid summer in the Hudson Valley would be a great time to become acquainted with this tropical favorite—it’s fresh, light, requires no cooking, and it can be customized about a billion different ways.
Poke originated centuries ago when Hawaiian fisherman, hungry for a snack, cut some of their catch (usually reef fish) into small cubes and seasoned the raw flesh with crispy seaweed, crushed candlenuts and sea salt. Japanese immigrants introduced Hawaiians to deep-water fishing techniques by the early twentieth century, allowing ahi tuna (yellowfin) to supplant reef fish as the most popular choice for poke. The Japanese also replaced seaweed and candlenuts with soy sauce and sesame oil.
While some Hawaiians still eat poke with seaweed and candlenuts, today, raw tuna with soy sauce, sesame oil, Maui white onions, scallions and chili peppers combine for the most popular version. Poke also may be made with octopus (raw, boiled or lightly grilled), salmon, mussels, crab or shellfish; there’s even a tofu version for vegetarians and vegans. In fact, contemporary poke may be mixed with almost anything, including avocado, pineapple, mushrooms, Sriracha sauce, fish roe, mango, wasabi, cilantro, kimchi, aioli—even truffle oil. Traditionally served as a standalone dish, mainland versions often are served in bowls over rice (known as—what else?—a poke bowl).
The freshness of the fish is the top priority for successful poke—one good reason to be on intimate terms with a fishmonger. It’s also important to know the provenance of the catch—a lot of frozen tuna imported into the U.S. has been treated with carbon monoxide (CO)—a process known as “gassing fish”—so it will retain its red color. Though the FDA claims the practice is safe, Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and the European Union have banned CO-treated products. (Gassing preserves the fish’s color, but it doesn’t preserve flavor, texture, or the integrity of the flesh, and the process can be used to mask spoiled products.) Another major concern is that as ahi tuna gains popularity its population could drastically decrease because of overfishing (see sidebar).
In Hawaii, poke often can be found in supermarkets (Foodland, for example, offers at least 13 varieties daily, and the food chain’s version has been voted Hawaii’s Best Poke eight years running.)
If you can find the right ingredients, though, it’s easy and fun to make your own. Fresh fish is the most important ingredient, of course, and Al Cobb-Adams, owner of Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona, recommends using fatty fish—the fattier the better—to make the best-tasting poke. In addition to ahi, Cobb-Adams likes bluefin tuna, salmon and marlin. He also cautions against using anything frozen or farm-raised.
The size of the fish cubes that go into your poke depends on personal taste—people who love raw fish can handle big cubes; those unfamiliar with it or who are put off by a strong, fishy taste will likely prefer smaller cubes, which have a higher ratio of dressing to fish.
Chef Gerard Viverito, Associate Professor in Culinary Arts at the CIA, where he teaches the Seafood Identification and Fabrication class, finds that any oily, firm fish works, though he prefers hamachi (amberjack, or Pacific yellowtail) because “its buttery texture and mild flavor pairs with anything.” He’s also been “playing around” with tank-raised steelhead grown in Greenport, which, he says, “takes to the preparation just as well.” To keep it interesting, Viverito recommends “fun” add-ins such as kimchi, shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, pickled ginger, crabmeat, furikake (a Japanese seasoning), dried seaweed and seaweed salad.
The dish is gaining popularity at restaurants here, too. You could say (though we don’t recommend it) that poke is poking up throughout the valley. Inno Sushi (Mount Kisco) offers three signature poke bowls (the sashimi Bibim Bob includes salmon, tuna, carrots, cucumber, peppers, avocado and pepper sauce), and poke has been spotted at Heritage Food + Drink in Wappingers. The CIA’s Apple Pie Bakery Cafe’s new regional American menu features—you guessed it—tuna poke.
At L’inizio (Ardsley), chef/owner Scott Fratangelo offered a beet poke on his Hudson Valley Restaurant Week menu. The beet cubes were a perfect substitute for tuna—so much so that “we ran a sliced version and called it sashimi,” Fratangelo says, acknowledging the almost infinite combinations poke inspires. “It’s more like a snack or a quick bite in a bowl. I do love it with most fish that you would eat raw; I also really love it with vegetables of all kinds, especially radishes,” he says. “Poke is really a dressing in my mind, so I actually apply it to everything and anything.”
At Riverview Restaurant in Cold Spring, chef/owner Jim Ely has offered tuna poke as both a main course and a side dish for over a decade. He acknowledges that crafting the perfect poke isn’t a simple task. “It’s easy to miss the mark with a dish like this—the flavors and textures are so specific, one could possibly override another,” he notes. “We use avocados and mangos that are at the right stage of ripeness, we pick the best quality tuna, and the soy vinaigrette has to be just right and served with the perfect seaweed salad—not too soft or firm.”
Once you become comfortable with poke—yours or someone else’s—it becomes a blank canvas ready for all sorts of ingredients and condiments. Numerous poke festivals and contests are now held along the West Coast, and at the 10th Annual Great Poke Contest in Hawaii (one of many such competitions on the Islands), three sisters created a Hawaii/South Carolina/Texas fusion poke that incorporated flavors from the three states—a crawfish-infused, Cajun egg roll, shrimp jambalaya poke topped with Cajun seasoning and remoulade. Girls gone wild, indeed.
Know Your Fish
California’s respected Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (seafoodwatch.org) features downloadable, consumer-targeted, regional guides (and an iPhone app) with current information on aquatic species sustainability, as well as lists of what species to avoid purchasing because of overfishing or environment-damaging farming methods. Right now, Seafood Watch recommends avoiding ahi tuna that is longline-caught anywhere except in U.S. waters. (Longlines—a main fishing line to which shorter baited lines are attached—can catch and kill many unintended and/or endangered species.) For the time being, ahi caught by other methods are cleared. Another resource for concerned consumers is the Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org), the world’s leading certification and eco-labeling program for sustainable seafood.