• Kali Ah Yuen

Good Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Fake Poke

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

Over five years ago, you probably would have never heard of the dish “poke”, pronounced poh-kay, unless you were in Hawaii. That all changed around 2017 when the mainland (the states) introduced its own version of the marinated raw ahi tuna.

What originated as a Native Hawaiian cuisine, quickly took the mainland by storm and changed its traditional qualities along the way. Here's why...

You might have noticed poke restaurants popping up and maybe you've even seen poke kits sold at your local grocery store. My opinion as a native Hawaiian, who grew up on the dish: don’t waste your money. I moved here over 10 years ago so it always gets me hyped up when a bit of home arrives overseas. Naturally when I saw it was coming to Texas, I got excited. However, when I tried it at a newly opened restaurant, I was not pleased. To say I was disappointed was an understatement.

Hawaiian Poke Bowl

Let’s take it back a bit to what the word truly means. “Poke” means “to cut up into chunks” in Hawaiian. Back in the 1800s, Native Hawaiians would slice up small reef fish and serve it raw with natural seasonings. It would then be served with shoyu, limu, and kukui nuts or sesame seeds a few decades later. The dish could be eaten alone or in a poke bowl, which sits on a bed of rice.

Sounds like a wholesome Hawaiian meal, right? It was...until it started being served on zoodles, quinoa, and other healthy greens that people love to juice. This was a part of the transformation that poke went through once it hit the mainland. And it was quick to get around town as the trendy, must-try dish, as it was labeled healthy, because of how it’s made with raw ingredients.

Before diving into the negatives of the poke bandwagon, we have to acknowledge that one positive thing came out of it, and that was putting Hawaiian cuisine in the spotlight. But seeing it gain so much press outside of the island is a bit conflicting, especially because of how personal food is for Hawaiians, and that of any culture really. One chef from Hawaii said it best:

“There’s a spiritual connection between the food and us islanders, and if you don’t feel that connection, the Instagram and Facebook posts aren’t going to teach you much about who we are.”

In the age of social media, it’s easy for one pretty picture of a dish to go viral. Then you add the fact that it piques other’s interest because of how different it looks outside of their typical meals, and it’s a wrap.

Let’s not forget to look at it from a business perspective, too. One article stated that poke is “customizable and more economical compared to opening a restaurant”. It also mentions how making the dish doesn’t even require a full kitchen. So business owners can save money when it comes to overhead costs and bring in a pretty exceptional profit. But at the cost of a culture’s sacred meal.

Mainland "Poke" Bowl

It's as if the dish morphed into something like a marketing scheme, entrancing health enthusiasts and workout lovers with its fresh ingredients. Mainland poke chains even portray stereotypical Hawaiian imagery, such as surfboards, hula dancers, pineapples, and shaka signs. And the ingredients they offer (like mango, pineapple, avocado, and ranch dressing), have little to do with the traditional preparation. One restaurant I went to even went as far as adding watermelon poke to their menu.

The freshness of poke is another vital element to the dish. When you think about it, Hawaiians have a great supply of fresh fish as the islands are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. But there’s a finite supply for the mainland, especially the states that aren’t surrounded by bodies of water. So when you try the dish, make sure you’re being served fresh fish, otherwise you’re not going to embody the history behind it.

Although the mainland bandwagon is changing poke from its traditional form, it will always be a part of Hawaiian culture. For those who are interested in trying it, do your research if you want an authentic experience and don’t be fooled by the name of the restaurant.

For those who already have tried it and are raving about it, rethink about how it was modified. And for locals like myself, we’ll probably stick to eating it at home or waiting till we can get a flight back to Hawaii.

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