A few weeks ago, I went to the I Love Poke OC festival at Hotel Irvine expecting to eat my way through the latest build-your-own meal trend, which is all but hitting critical mass in Orange County.
Over the last four years, I’ve watched as a proliferation of new single-subject restaurants sprouted from between the fast-casual-concept cracks, all using the historic, Hawaiian raw fish dish as the basis for a new Chipotle-style experience.
But instead of a day dedicated to some of the area’s biggest names in pile-it-on poke bowl-ing, the intimate I Love Poke festival transported attendees right back to the islands, where a backyard-style party was hosted to honor poke’s place in Hawaiian culture, not its new life as SoCal’s latest food obsession.
“Poke is food; it’s not a fad,” said Chris Zarlitos, a vendor at the 5-year-old fest, who’s pre-prepared poke (always without an accent, pronounced po-KAY) served at his parent’s Filipino restaurant near San Diego. “After a year or two of eating poke at all these Subway-style places, people [on the mainland] are going to get poke’d out. They’re going to be done. In Hawaii, it’s sustenance. You eat it for breakfast or lunch because that’s what’s traditionally done. There, it’s food, not a fad.”
It is estimated that for centuries before the arrival of Captain Cook, native Hawaiians hauled fresh fish out of the reefs, cubed them up and tossed them with sea salt, kukui nuts and whatever seaweed was floating by. It wasn’t called poke then, just pupu — a snack — prepared at home by fisherman and their families and enjoyed with laughter and good friends.
Over time, the dish evolved with the influences that came to the island chain. It took on more Japanese flavors like shoyu and sesame oil. Deep-water seafood like ahi and octopus became more popular protein options. And while poke remains a family tradition for many in Hawaii, these days, its many flavor expressions can be easily found for sale by the pound everywhere from beachside shacks to grocery stores.
The incorporation of sushi styles (Spicy tuna! Aoli marinade!) and other Asian ingredients have today made the once-simple snack into something as diverse as the cuisine of Hawaii itself.
But even as poke moved from auntie’s recipes to store-bought creations (and eventually onto menus at seafood joints and fine-dining restaurant on the mainland), a few things remained at its core: a dedication to sourcing fresh fish, an interest in using top-quality ingredients and the need to maintain a connection to the island culture that made poke popular in the first place.
“Poke is nostalgic. Poke in Hawaii is something you grew up as a kid with,” says Troy Wada of Honolulu’s Da Hawaiian Poke Company, a third-generation poke master who flew from Oahu to serve both an old-school (salt, onions, kukui nut, rare Hawaiian seaweed) and new-school (shoyu sauce, furikake, crispy garlic, chili flakes) poke at the I Love Poke OC festival.
“You eat poke from your favorite poke place because that’s where your dad took you when you were a kid. Or maybe the fisherman who lives next door gave you a small piece of ahi and you cooked it at home. That’s what poke represents.”
Wada says he wants to recreate that nostalgia for poke eaters on the mainland, and he’s looking to open his first West Coast location in the Irvine area sometime next year. When Da Hawaiian Poke Company does open, it will be the first Hawaiian-born poke chain to come to Southern California. It’s a responsibility Wada does not take lightly.
“When customers come to our [Irvine] store, we want to re-create that nostalgia for them where it’s fresh just like how mom used to make it before dinner, or how uncle used to give us poke when he came home from fishing,” he said. “That’s how I think poke should be represented here.”
Every vendor at I Love Poke OC — more than half of which were from Orange County — brought this islands-bred vision of poke, one that, much to many Hawaiians’ dismay, is in stark contrast to what is being pushed by the many minimalist, fast-casual so-called poke operations in Orange County.
In this SoCal era of poke-as-cheap-health-food trend — where you pick your (potentially previously frozen) protein base and go down the line of ingredients only to have them tossed together with some imitation crab and thrown on top of a pile of rice — Hawaii can be easily forgotten. Some people at the festival compared the build-a-bowl concept’s detachment from authentic poke to Panda Express or Taco Bell, introductory places that let people dip their toes in a cuisine but that aren’t proper representations of the culture.
“I like to call it mainland poke. That way if you’re going to eat mainland poke, you can’t expect certain ingredients you would on the islands, and that gives it room and cushion to be different,” says Nino Camilo, founder of Hawaiian-American food blog Ono Yum and the I Love Poke festivals (its flagship is in San Diego).
Camilo sees mainland poke as a good gateway to get people excited about traditional poke, and for the last few years, he’s incorporated educational opportunities into his expertly curated events to help increase understanding of what exactly “traditional poke” means.
At I Love Poke OC, this meant that in addition to presenting Hawaiian song and dance, the festival’s stage played host to a fish-cutting demonstration by a machete-armed Josh Schade of Oahu’s Ahi Assassins and a poke preparation demo where Wada created a batch of his famous Da Works poke for the audience.
It all starts with fresh (never frozen!) fish gutted and sliced with sushi-grade precision, and ends with a two-step mixing process that blends the dry ingredients first before incorporating the fish.
“The reason why we did [the demos] is because I feel the need to help educate people on what poke really is so they can know the difference,” Camilo says. He notes that the knowledge of and passion for Hawaiian culture, and not the recipes themselves, really differentiate mainland poke from the real Hawaiian kind. I Love Poke OC vendors like 370 Common, North Shore Poke Co. and Poke OG are among the many outlets on the West Coast keeping the Hawaiian tradition alive.
“I’ve been to a lot of those Chipotle-style poke places and it lacks aloha. It lacks the care. It lacks the pride. My festival is about the culture, and it always will be about the experience that you’re in Hawaii in somebody’s backyard doing things the way it’s been done.”
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.