Poke: genesis and evolution
If there is a trendy dish that is simply omnipresent today, it is poke (often called "poké" but whose correct pronunciation is "poh-kay").
In Italy and in Milan, it is made with a multitude of ingredients that refer to freshness and well-being, the poke actually provides a recipe that was originally very different and that has its roots in the history of Hawaii.
Hawaii is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean that was annexed to the USA in 1959. Since ancient times, these islands have been the destination of numerous adventurous peoples who have determined their culture and religion, first of all the Polynesians who arrived in 400 AD. Among the many who followed them over time were Portuguese, Filipinos and Koreans.
As it is easy to guess, fish has always characterized the diet of the locals, fishermen used to consume cubes of fish as a snack (poke means "cut into chunks") seasoned with what they had available: this is the archetypal poke recipe. Over time, every people who landed on the islands added a seasoning of their land: this is why in Hawaii it is still possible to find a great deal of variations today.
Surely the most significant evolution of the recipe came with the arrival of the Chinese and the Japanese, who brought soy sauce and sesame oil. According to Martha Cheng's The poke cookbook, it is with the addition of these two ingredients that the dish changes its name to shoyu poke.
It should be noted that originally the poke was prepared with white fish, but with the arrival of the Japanese it was replaced by bluefin tuna (yellow fins) and the inevitable steamed rice was added, thus composing the ahi poke.
Aesthetically the ahi poke is certainly more captivating than the original one, as well as being the dish most similar to the appreciated maguro don.
The word "don" in Japanese means "bowl" and encompasses a broad category of dishes that are very popular both in Japan and abroad, served in a bowl with steamed rice and various ingredients.
Among the donburi, poke is very close to cirashi sushi or kaisen don: originally called "Edomae cirashizushi" (Edo was the ancient name of Tokyo), the meaning of which is "scattered rice" since it consists of a bowl of rice seasoned with vinegar and on the surface of which sashimi is sprinkled. Cirashi sushi can also be presented in a gomokuzushi version (with cooked and raw ingredients) or as a spectacular bara cirashi.
The influences brought by the peoples of the Far East were many, as evidenced by the presence in the islands of taro (tuber similar to the potato) and saimin, a dish very similar to ramen prepared with egg noodles, dashi broth, kamakobo, spring onions , slices of char siu or Spam (in the Chinese version there are also wonton).
Returning to poke, it has a lot to share with more or less known dishes typical of the peoples who emigrated to Hawaii such as Polynesian ika mata, kokoda of Fiji, otai ika of Tonga, Filipino poqui poqui, Korean hoe-deopbap, Peruvian ceviche, European tartare and carpaccio.
According to gastronomic historian Rachel Laudan, poke appears in cookbooks only in the 1970s: the recipe included Hawaiian salt, seaweed and grilled kukui nut pulp.
In the 90s, chef Sam Choy has the merit of having made Pacific cuisine known thanks to the numerous festivals (Kuai Poke Fest with Sam Choy and Friends) organized by him in which numerous competitors offer their own version of poke.
Since 2012, poke has arrived in California, claimed to be the "surfer's food": many entrepreneurs immediately sense the possible commercial success of this dish, presenting it as complete, healthy, aesthetically appealing and relatively cheap. From Los Angeles to New York the step is short, poke soon arrives in Europe too.
In Italy poke is advertised as well as in the United States, a dish that includes a base of rice, proteins (edamame or tofu), vegetables (avocado, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots and corn) and additional toppings (fresh or dried fruit, seeds of sesame, spicy mayonnaise, sriracha sauce, teriyaki and ponzu). All this is combined with the green philosophy and well-being, albeit opening, in this way, a great debate on ethics and sustainability - the bluefin tuna is in danger of extinction, the avocado is not a properly sustainable fruit.
In Milan, the first restaurant to offer poke in 2015 was The Botanical Club. In 2017 it opened I love poke (the first poke fast food chain, conceived by Rana Edwards and Nazir Lewis on the Californian model) and subsequently Poke House (which proposes recipes from the West Coast, founded by Vittoria Zanetti with his partner Matteo Pichi).
Milan has had the opportunity to know and appreciate raw fish and exotic tastes over more than ten years thanks to prominent personalities such as Nobu (I talked about it extensively here), successful Nikkei restaurants such as Yuzu, but also Japanese-Brazilian chains that in the last ten years they have had their say in the city: these realities immediately understood the commercial success of poke and opened specific spin-offs; Temakinho with Pokinho, Pokéria by Nima, Bomaki with Poku, Copacabana and also the famous Macha Cafè.
The number of poke houses opened in recent years is almost impossible to calculate if you include all the poke proposals included in the menus of restaurants that usually do not even prepare this dish!
But what does so much apparent choice lead to? What is the final result to date? Alas, in my opinion it is something very disappointing. Italian poke is a far cry from the original Hawaiian version, it's more of an over-the-top mix of bulk ingredients. The ease of execution and transport of this dish however allowed its success especially during Covid-19, being quite cheap and composed of known and appreciated ingredients; suffice it to say that the Japanese-Brazilian chains have used the same ingredients of Italian poke for years to prepare temaki and roll.
Basically, we are faced with a multitude of identical fast food restaurants, offering the same recipes and advertising themselves with practically the same slogans. And the quality? Often very dubious. For these reasons, in recent times, the desire to discover the origin of poke and its real execution is being born, albeit timidly. In this regard, I point to the Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil where the real poke recipe from Ahi Assassins Fish Co. is presented - as well as the shave ice, or kakigori, from Uncle Clay's House of Pure Aloha and the ozaku from The Feeding Leaf.
Returning to Hawaii, as already pointed out, the variations of poke are as numerous as the influences of the peoples who emigrated to the archipelago. Some recipes have become a real cult over time, here I propose a small list:
AHI POKE MUSUBI: the poke is placed inside a spherical musubi (or onigiri) then fried. Tasty and fragrant. Where? Hoku's 📍 5000 Kahala Ave, Honolulu, HI 96816
HAUTE POKE: this poke is part of Chef Keiji Nakazawa's thirty-course tasting menu ($ 300). It is prepared with local tuna, soy sauce, mustard, Maui onion, smoked salmon, banana leaves, red snapper, macadamia nut sauce. Where? Ritz Carlton Waikiki Beach 📍383 Kalaimoku St, Waikiki, HI 96815
POKE INARI SUSHI: poke is contained inside the fried tofu (as if it were a small bag). Where? Tanioka's Seafoods & Catering (they sell it in packs of three) 📍94-903 Farrington Hwy, Waipahu, HI 96797
POKE NACHOS: made with bluefin tuna, mayonnaise, sriracha sauce, nachos, coriander, lime and avocado. Where? Nico's Pier 38 📍1129 N Nimitz Hwy, Honolulu, HI 96817
POKE TACOS: the only version of poke that you eat entirely with your hands. Where? Moku Kitchen 📍660 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96813 Monkeypod Kitchen 📍 2435 Kaanapali Pkwy, Bldg I-1, Lahaina, HI 96761
POKE TOSTADAS: tostada topped with ahi poke, jalapeño, coriander and ponzu sauce. Where? Foodland
SUSHI SLIDERS: this is certainly the most unique and atypical version, since it is made up of kale tempura and spicy mayonnaise. Where? Otsuji farm (at the stands of the vegetable market) 📍 459 Pakala St, Honolulu, HI 96825
We have come to the end of this in-depth study full of information.
Among the various dishes mentioned there are the donburi, particularly appreciated here in Italy as well. If you like to try your hand at some very simple recipes, here are some ideas: teriyaki chicken donburi, katsudon, oyakodon.
If, on the other hand, you are in Milan and you want to try delicious ones in restaurants, my suggestions are: Ichikawa for kaisen don, Coedo for katsudon and gyudon, Oasi giapponese for unadon, and Poporoya for an easy and Osaka-style cirashi sushi.
Making a good ahi poke of tuna at home is very easy! Here is my recipe to prepare it according to the Hawaiian ingredients and method of preparation.
1 large slice of fresh and blast red tuna cut into cubes that are not too small
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce (adjust to taste)
1/2 tablespoon of sesame oil
1 teaspoon of salt (better if you can use the Hawaiian one)
1/2 spring onion, thinly sliced (only the green part)
1/2 white onion finely chopped
white sesame seeds
- Season the tuna with the soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and onion.
- Arrange the seasoned tuna on the steamed rice in the serving bowl.
- Garnish with spring onion and sesame seeds.