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.