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Go to any social gathering in the Hawaiian islands, and you will taste the ancient fish dish known as poke (pronounced pokey): a snack and an appetizer that renowned Island Chef Sam Choy has dubbed “Hawaii’s soul food.”

Like the humble hamburger on the mainland, the simple fish dish has become a cultural touchstone for people who live in the Islands, with endless variations that reflect their diverse ethnicities — Japanese, Korean and Chinese — while remaining a truly local food.

Ed Metcalfe of Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen in Sonoma has been making poke for the past 15 years, ever since he did his culinary externsnip for the California Culinary Academy at a resort on the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

“Hawaii is where my cooking started in terms of the Pacific Rim,” Metcalfe said, while sitting inside his Pan-Asian restaurant in the Maxwell Village Shopping Center. “My sous chef was born and raised in Hawaii, and he taught me how to make poke for the family meal.”

The humble dish of raw fish chunks, dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, seaweed and a variety of other accoutrements, originated in the pre-Captain James Cook days of Hawaii, when most of the population ate wild fish and shellfish and other animal proteins such as pork were reserved for royalty.

At Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen, Metcalfe offers a few different kinds of poke, which are mostly made from fresh ahi tuna, cut into large chunks (poke means to slice or cu”) from a whole tuna that he and his kitchen staff filets themselves.

“The fish comes from Mexico, Hawaii, Thailand and the Philippines,” he said. “We use the ahi because it’s the most sustainable ... it’s more prevalent in our oceans.”

Although it started out as a homespun dish, the simple but satifying poke bowl — the cubed fish dressed and served over rice or salad or slaw — has recently evolved into a high-end restaurant dish, riding the growing wave of Hawaiian food’s popularity.

“Some of the best restaurants right now are Hawaiian, like the Lihoiho Yacht Club in downtown San Francisco,” Metcalfe said. “But there’s also a poke chain now, and they’re everywhere.”

Because it’s made with just a few ingredients — and doesn’t require any cooking — the dish remains quite accessible to the home cook, especially during the hot summer months, when, to be honest, no one wants to sweat over a hot stove.

“It’s really just five ingredients,” Metcalfe said. “Cubed ahi, soy sauce, sesame oil, wakeme (edible seaweed) and sesame seeds.”

The casual dish can be easily customized to your own tastes, with tofu and avocado and other variations available to vegetarians.

To give his poke extra crunch and texture, Metcalfe will often throw in some Maui or green onions along with some crisp cucumber chunks.

He has also come up with a Korean version made with pickled jalapenos and gochujang (fermented red chile paste) and a salmon poke spiced with togaroshi (Japanese 7-spice mixture with dried chile peppers, nori, hemp seeds and sesame seeds.)

There are no limits to the ways you can improvise on this imple dish, as evidenced by Hawaiian Chef Sam Choy, who has written three cookbooks dedicated to poke.

The recent popularity of poke can be traced directly to Choy, who launched an annual poke recipe contest on the Big Island in 1992. Over the years, the contest has grown into a huge festival comprising both cooking classes and tastings.

“Sam Choy has a cookbook with 100 different versions,” Metcalfe said. “You can also make it with octopus or calamari.”

In its local appeal to Hawaiians, poke shares the spotlight with other iconic dishes such as Lomi-lomi Salmon (steamed salmon with onions and tomato), the Mainland-inspired Moco Loco (a hamburger patty with gravy over rice) and Musubi, a piece of seared Spam on top of rice that’s been wrapped in nori.

“I used to make a Spam-fried rice,” Metcalfe said. “Now, at the restaurant, we do a great fried rice with sauteed veggies, house-cured bacon, and a fried egg on top.”

When buying fresh ahi, it’s always good to look for bright, pink flesh. However, sometimes the tuna has been treated with carbon monoxide (CO) to prevent oxidation, which helps the fish retain its color, Metcalfe said.

That means that the tuna may not be as fresh as it looks.

To ensure you get a high quality product, Hawaiian Fresh Seafood advises that consumers to get to know their fishmonger and ask them where the fish is from, how it was caught and handled. In addition to being pink, good-quality ahi should have a firm, shiny appearance and be nearly odorless.

Someday, Metcalfe hopes to open a fish market in Sonoma where he can share the high caliber of the fish he sources with other seafood lovers in the area.

Meanwhile, he is happy to whet their appetites for fresh fish by serving an array of beer, sake specialty cocktails, including the Lychee Martini, made with Korean soju (rice liquor), lychee juice and lychee fruit.

“The fruit is sweet and sour and tropical,” he said of the lychee, which has a rough, red exterior and a white, grape-like flesh.

The following recipes are from Ed Metcalfe, chef/owner of Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen in Sonoma. You can find the Asian ingredients at most specialty markets or at an Asian market.

Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen’s Ahi Poke

Makes 4 servings

12 ounces cubed fresh ahi tuna (about 1-inch cubes)

3 ounces kombu or dried seaweed (bloomed in cold water and drained)

4 scallions, sliced thin

1 ounce toasted sesame seeds

1 Japanese cucumber, cut into small, 1-inch quarters

For poke sauce:

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sesame oil

1 tablespoon red chili paste

1 tablespoon chopped garlic (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger (optional)

Toss first five ingredients together. Whisk together poke sauce and add to the dry ingredients.

Serve over rice or salad.

Carbonara Fried Rice

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 diced bacon (or cured pork belly)

1 white onion, diced

6 green beans, diced

1 carrot, diced

1 baby book coy, diced

3 celery ribs, diced

2 ounces bean sprouts

2 ounces pea shoots or spinach

3 cups day-old rice (dried out on a sheet pan for 1 day)

4 tablespoons sesame oil

4 tablespoons sambal (or Korean chili paste or Sriracha)

6 tablespoons soy sauce

4 eggs, fried.

In a large skillet, add canola oil and wait until pan is hot. Add bacon and let brown until nice and crisp. Add all the vegetables and saute for about 2-3 minutes until soft. Add rice and then finish with sesame oil, sambal and soy sauce. Stir until color is golden brown and all liquid has been mixed in well. Serve each portion with a fried egg on top.

Lychee Martini

Makes 4 servings

1 can lychee fruit (4 fruits reserved for garnish)

3 ounces lychee juice from the can

13 ounces soju (Korean vodka)

Shake the lychee juice and soju well in a martini shake over ice. Serve in chilled martini glasses, each garnished with a floating lychee fruit.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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