Meet Poké, the Hawaiian Raw Fish Dish Having Its Moment in the Sun

Poké is near ubiquitous in Hawaii, served everywhere from run-of-the-mill grocery stores to gas stations, surf shacks, and beyond. The Hawaiian classic is casual, the kind of food you pack into a flimsy plastic cup for the road and eat somewhere on the beach listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. Now you can eat new-school versions on the mainland, served atop trendy rice bowls and plated at upscale restaurants, from the sunny shores of Los Angeles to Charleston and Brooklyn. So, what is poké, and what is it doing on the mainland, in places like Boulder, Colorado, that are hundreds of miles from the nearest shore?

What is Poké?

Traditionally, poké (pronounced POKE-AY, not POKE-EE) is chunks of tuna marinated in soy and sesame, said Gerald San Jose, co-owner at Noreetuh, a hot new Hawaiian-inspired restaurant in New York. But poké is such a ubiquitous term that it can mean anything chunked, because poké comes from the verb for “to section, slice, or cut” in Hawaiian language, he said. San Jose also mentioned that poké is everywhere in Hawaii; you can go to the nearest grocery store and find 20 different versions, from octopus with a creamy dressing to avocado poké with sesame oil.

When it comes to fish poké, the most common kind is tuna. But don’t confuse it with sashimi, tartare, or ceviche. Unlike sashimi, where the fish is sliced thin and long, or tartare, where the fish, often tuna, is diced and held together by a sauce-glue, tuna poké is cut into thick cubes and mixed as a free-form salad. Poké is probably closest to ceviche but, Jesse Sandole, co-owner at 167 Raw in Charleston and Nantucket, which serves its version with tortilla chips, explained the difference: “We like to make the red wine, white wine comparison. Ceviche with all of the bright, acidic flavors speaks more to a white wine, whereas poké has more bold, savory, and rounded flavors that speak more to red wine.”

Why Now?

The perfect storm of factors has brought tuna poké to the mainland. First, said San Jose, Hawaiian food is becoming more popular: “Hawaiian cuisine on the islands is getting better, too. Chefs are blowing away the stereotype that it’s all spam, poi, and pineapple. It’s so much better than that.” According to Nestadt of Sweetfin, it’s perfect timing thanks to diners’ growing comfort with raw fish, especially in L.A., a bonafide sushi Mecca. Plus, the rise of the grain bowl—a cheap, quick, easy, and filling snack or lunch—has paved the way for a new topping for rice: fish. Nestadt has even taken to calling Sweetfin’s chirashi bowl cousin “Californian poké,” because they dress the chunked tuna with different sauces, such as a spicy mayo-inspired togarashi sauce, and put it on rice, kelp noodles, or kale, to serve with a dash of salt, scallion, and blackened sesame seeds. “To have raw fish in a bowl as a more affordable, simpler option than sushi here [in L.A.] seems like a logical progression of the sushi movement,” said Nestadt.

Meet Poké, the Hawaiian Raw Fish Dish Having Its Moment in the Sun

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