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Hawaii’s endless poke craze, stoked by new twists and traditional dishes

Hawaii’s signature fish dish called poke has taken the country by storm. But the dish’s roots are clearly in the islands, where you’ll find a variety of preparations from high-end restaurants to the corner 7-Eleven.

To the uninitiated, poke (it’s pronounced POE-kee) is, at its core, raw fish — often tuna — that has been cut into bite-size pieces and seasoned. Think sushi, but different.

As Hawaiians’ desire for the healthful, sustainable dish grows, so too does its presence on menus.

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On Maui, at the upscale Montage Kapalua Bay, the Cane & Canoe restaurant has begun offering a flight of three very different poke presentations.

Guests may start by sampling the most basic of the dishes, the traditional ahi poke. It is thinly sliced ahi tuna with a light sauce, scallions and toasted sesame seeds.

Octopus is the star of the kim chee tako poke. Slightly more sophisticated, it’s prepared with chunks and thin slices of octopus served in a sauce with Napa cabbage, red onion and daikon radish.

For the flight’s third dish, hamachi poke is made using yellowtail, a fish commonly used in sushi in Japan. Placed on a bed of salad, the fish is topped with an avocado-yuzu mousse and paddlefish roe.

The poke trio is priced at $28.

On Hawaii Island, visitors often find themselves standing in line at Da Poke Shack. In 2014, Yelp users voted it the top restaurant in America.

This unpretentious eatery built its reputation, pure and simple, on poke.

The offerings include Dynamite, prepared with an avocado aioli; the spicy Pele’s Kiss; and the sweet Shack Special. Bowls come with the usual scoop of rice and a choice of sides.

In the islands, though, a poke fix can be had at a convenience store or supermarket, most of which sell poke bowls.

Honolulu Magazine described the dish as “Hawaii’s hamburger” in a 2010 feature.

“Its explosion in popularity and rise as a culinary icon has made poke Hawaii’s hamburger, another foodstuff that began with humble origins and has taken on a cultural identity, whether enjoyed in a backyard or in a restaurant,” the magazine wrote.

“Home cooks in Hawaii experimented with poke for potlucks, while cooks on the Mainland tinkered with hamburgers at backyard BBQs.”

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