Native Hawaiians, just like their ancestors before them, have a special relationship with the sea. It is the view from every mountaintop, and the outlet to every valley; it is behind every corner on the drive to work, to surf, to the city, and to home. Although equipped with a set of dangers, the Pacific is a constant source of comfort. The sea has provided food and tools since the first travelers left the Society Islands and Tahiti. Seafood and fish have been a part of the Hawaiian diet since time immemorial, from caught fish, to poke, to modern fish tacos. The origins of traditional poke is a particularly excellent example of the evolution from a necessary ocean staple, to a popular fast-casual food in shops across the states.
In the (pre-colonial) days before the arrival of Western travelers, the people of the land used the sea as their icebox. Ancient Hawaiians took to the Pacific when they were hungry, and they would prepare their fresh daily catch of raw reef fish by salting, slicing, and adding limu (seaweed) as well as crushed kukui nut (candlenut). The staple ocean dish was popular mainly due to its immediate availability and source of nutrition and calories. Its humble beginnings were from fishermen seasoning the cut-offs of their haul to consume as a snack. The meaning of the word “poke” quite literally translates “to cut crosswise into pieces.” Most historians also agree that the name was not used to refer to the dish until the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The donning of poke as a name coincided with the increasing availability of ahi (tuna). The aesthetic of the traditional grey reef fish paled in comparison to both the bright pink appearance and delicious taste of ahi meat. Chef Sam Choy was a key figure in presenting this current form of poke that we know today to the masses in the 1970’s. He was one of the early pioneers of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine Movement. Raw fish once again became trendy to eat as Sam Choy launched his initial poke contest in 1991 that hosted various poke recipes from across Hawai’i. These recipes use deboned, skinned, and filleted raw fish commonly served with ground and roasted kukui nut, seaweed, and Hawaiian salt.
The poke contest continues to be an annual event which showcases the multiple creative renditions of such a flexible dish, inspiring home cooks and chefs everywhere. By about 2012 the mainland US began to see an increasing popularity with poke as well. From 2014 to mid-2016, “the number of Hawaiian restaurants on Foursquare, which includes those that serve poke, doubled, going from 342 to 700.” These restaurants are mainly, though not exclusively, fast-casual, and serve traditional as well as modern iterations of the dish. The variations in style include but are not limited to: ponzu sauce, avocado, mushrooms, teriyaki sauce, pickled jalapeno, crispy onions, pineapple, cilantro, and cucumber.