Poke Here, Poke There
Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is as indigenous to Hawaii as the coconuts and the world-class beaches. The dish is made up of nothing but cubed raw fish, usually ahi tuna, simply seasoned with sea salt and slender slivers of seaweed. It's essentially no-frills sashimi, enjoyed by its native fishermen for centuries, but popularized by perfunctory hotel luaus and celebrity Hawaiian chefs like Sam Choy.
I recently came back from my first trip to our 50th state, where I ate this local delicacy in the quaint town of Hilo, after being empowered by Kirk of the über-food blog, Mmm-yoso, with a roadmap of foods to try and places to try it.
Poke was a high on the list of priorities, but eating it where locals like Kirk would eat it was even more important to me than swimming in the most secluded beaches or snorkeling the bluest lagoons. He suggested KTA, a supermarket chain which sells the stuff by the pound, with locations throughout the Big Island.
But weeks before I even packed a single pair of shorts in my luggage, I went in search of poke in Irvine. And I found it at Nalu's Island Grill, in the Quail Hill Village Center. Here was a poke primer and it was no more than a few clicks away from home.
Which poke was better? Well, it's no contest really. But to be fair, what I had at Nalu's, because of the way I chose to have it, wasn't technically poke in the most traditional sense.
And as for KTA's poke, in addition to weilding the homecourt advantage, the fact that I was eating it while on vacation made it just that much more delicious -- everything tastes better when you're on vacation.
Here's the breakdown.
Its walls plastered with posters of surfers riding cresting waves and an atmosphere reeking of Von Zipper hipness, Nalu Island Grill's main attraction, as with most Hawaiian joints, are the plate lunches. But my eyes immediately locked onto the words "Ahi Poke Salad" like a sailor lured by sirens.
The total sticker price was $7.49, and comes with the ahi either "rare" or "seared". Going against the concept of poke, I chose it seared. And as expected, the tiny chunks of tuna were cooked on a griddle to an opaque and pearly white, each morsel the size of a dinner mint. Placed on top of a bowl of greens with sliced tomato, wilted slivers of onion, diced scallions, and some crunchy fried noodles, the poke was more salad than poke. But it was refreshing nonetheless, introducing me to the dish in baby-steps.
The dressing -- a mix of soy, rice vinegar and sugar -- harbored a spicy bite and perked up the dish like an electric jolt to the system. The tuna, tasted like, well, like tuna; but a few notches above what you get out of a Starkist can. And although the dish had a Chinese Chicken Salad aura to it, its soul was still distinctly Hawaiian.
Nalu's Island Grill
6741 Quail Hill Pkwy
Irvine, CA 92603
Offered at the butcher's counter in the rear of the store and sold by the pound, poke at KTA comes in no less than a dozen dizzying varieties. There were different species and different flavors for the choosing, displayed in glistening mounds and scooped to order into small plastic tubs for weighing.
I had heard that poke is supposed to function as an appetizer or snack, but weeks of anticipation made my eyes bigger than my stomach. After picking out three pokes, we took our bounty outside to eat it on stone picnic tables located at the entrance to the market. With just a few wooden chopsticks in hand and iced bottles of water to wash it down, we gorged ourselves silly. Before we knew it, our poke snack became a full-fledged poke meal.
The Hawaiian Ahi Poke ($7.13) was the brightest in appearance and flavor. As catching to the eyes as polished rubies, the chilled cubes of ahi glinted in the sunlight, and soothed us to the very core with its clean taste and unmitigated freshness.
The measured use of seasoning only enhanced the experience. Dried chili flakes flecked each cube of fish, subjecting our palates to a subtle but slow burn; the crunchy bits of seaweed and sea salt added texture and flavor, respectively.
The Shoyu Ahi Poke ($6.36) was Korean influenced, with sesame oil and sesame seeds giving the raw tuna an oily sheen and a fragrant nuttiness. This and the soy sauce dominated the ahi, and caused it to taste more like marinated raw tuna, and less like poke. But the flavors were robust, bold, and rich. Although I still had an urge to take the whole mix to a hot wok for a quick sear.
A surprising turn was the Tako Miso Poke ($2.63), which delighted and intrigued our tongues. Thinly sliced octopus tentacle was steeped in a deeply tangy and milky-colored miso paste redolent with the mysteriously addictive alcohol sting of white wine. The tender chew of the cooked cephalopod pleased us, especially because every piece of octopus we've encountered in the mainland has been as rubbery as an old tire.
After polishing off the last pieces of the poke, we took a long swig of water and watched as the coconut trees billowed in the tropical breeze.
We were in a supermarket parking lot in Hawaii, and we were on vacation.
KTA Super Stores
50 E Puainako St
Hilo, HI 96720
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