A hell of a lot better than a poke in the eye
The new Hawaiian craze is everywhere and often fake
Poke is the culinary equivalent of bitcoin. You’ve heard of it, you wish you had got in early, but you haven’t. Now it’s everywhere. Having reached saturation abroad, the poke wave is only breaking across South Africa now. So let’s get it straight, what exactly is poke?
Poke is Hawaiian raw fish salad, as ubiquitous in Hawaii as hamburgers are in the US or boerewors is in South Africa. Poke means “to chop” which refers to the way the fish is cut, in a uniform, largish dice.
The most traditional poke is high-grade tuna, mixed with soy sauce, sesame seeds and spring onions. Poke is dressed with limu, which is a Hawaiian sea algae (which tastes like seaweed) and kukinuts (candlenuts, which have a similar taste and consistency to macadamia nuts). The scarcity of these traditional ingredients precludes it from being faithfully reproduced outside of Hawaii and, anyway, “traditional” poke is something of an oxymoron as this is an endlessly varying dish even in its homeland.Poke is heavily influenced by Japanese culinary influences. After native Hawaiians, local Japanese make up the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii. Poke is a reflection of this. Much like a hamburger or boerewors, it is endlessly adaptable and has as many variations as makers. Poke can be made with a variety of seafoods, including octopus, salmon, scallops and other shellfish. The protein can be served alone or on a bed of white rice, pineapple, sushi rice or red cabbage.
Culinary trends are dominated by an earnest search for wellness, and the poke bowl is shaping up to be the meal the army marches on. Its popularity is easy to understand: it’s an amalgam of healthyish ingredients, on the spectrum somewhere between a pious salad and deluxe sushi.
Poke is perfectly adaptable and as it enters the mainstream it suffers more and more from the “Subway effect” – transform your sandwich, burger, pizza or salad into a meal as adventurous or as uncreative as you want. Crucially, its pretty, colourful toppings are infinitely Instagrammable.The problem with popularity is that it does not guarantee quality, which is the case here. Poke does not herald the rise of Hawaiian food; it has more in common with cold-pressed juices and smoothie bowls than poi and laulau.
With one dedicated eatery in Johannesburg, Ono, and two in Cape Town, Hokey Pokey and the Poke Co., there are sure to be more iterations of this dish across the country. It won’t be long before you’ll be able to find it on menus countrywide, probably in the “healthy meals” section where Chinese chicken salad used to be.The truth is that the best poke you can lay your hands in in your own home. All you need to do is boil a pot of rice. Beyond that poke is a stir-together meal that can be made of ingredients found in a supermarket. A dressing made from soy sauce, sesame oil and macadamia nuts stirred through some good quality raw fish at the last minute, with whatever toppings you prefer. It’s a great weeknight meal and anyone can do it, which is probably why everyone is.