THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Cultural appropriation or food evolution?

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALThere have been several publications highlighting the opinions of chefs in Hawai‘i regarding the popularity of a dish previously only known in the 50th: poké. Before I say anything else, let me get this off of my chest. It is pronounced poh-keh, which means to slice or cut. Poh-kee is Gumby’s orange buddy, which has nothing to do with cubed raw seafood. It’s tantamount to “food experts” pronouncing those ethereal, light Japanese bread crumbs as pan-ko instead of paahn-ko. I mean, if you’re an authority on food, please pronounce it properly!

But getting back to the dish created by the original Polynesian settlers, the original poké probably consisted of mostly cubed raw fish, likely aku (skipjack tuna), ahi (yellowfin tuna) or ono (wahoo) seasoned simply with Hawaiian sea salt, limu (seaweed) and inamona (roasted crushed kukui or candlenuts). Of course, once that initial wave of immigrants from Spain and Portugal, along with the myriad of labor from that conglomerate known collectively as Asia arrived, so too did the green and round onions, chili peppers, soy and fish sauces and sesame oil to create what collectively is known as today’s modern poké.

Still Poké?

Of course, in the birthplace of poké, you’ll find a variety of non-red fleshed fish like au (marlin) and salmon and even pollack, cod and milkfish … Of course, the latter fish species aren’t simply sliced or cut, but are processed into surimi or those imitation crab legs. However, the surimi is cut to resemble chunks of crab and seasoned like your traditional poké. Poké also can include cooked mussels, chopped raw crab or raw opihi (limpets), along with boiled and smoked slices of he’e (octopus) instead of fish.

Mariposa Poké (hamachi, salmon, ahi, maui onion, ogo, garlic-chili and brown rice) at Neiman Marcus’ restaurant. photo by Ryan Matsumoto

In the last 20 years, one of the most popular poké is likely the spicy ahi poké, which hardly resembles the original poké recipes, as it contains mayonnaise spiked with chili oil and tobiko (flying fish roe) surrounding cubes of fresh raw ahi. In fact, you’ll find green, black, yellow and orange tobiko garnishing a wide variety of poké for that added color and salty crunch. A recent poké garnish is the use of chopped sea asparagus or sea beans, which also provide a salty crunch contrasting the texture of silky seafood.

Another poké variant over the same time span doesn’t involve poké itself, but how it is served. Yes, the ubiquitous poké bowl. What initially started as Hawai‘i’s version of chirashi (scattered) sushi, where a large scoop of poké was simply placed over a large scoop of white rice, has evolved to a full meal, with poké plus additional condiments, like raw or cooked vegetables, various Japanese pickles or non-poké proteins. I’ve even seen it topped with a sunny side egg with the poké playing second fiddle to all of the other toppings. But it still is so popular that most establishments that sell poké also can create your version of a poké bowl.

Is it Cultural Appropriation?

I personally don’t see any issue when one culture blends the flavors of cooking techniques into their own culture. I mean, one of the greatest culinary re-inventions started about 10 years ago when Chef Roy Choi combined his ethnic Korean flavors with the traditional Mexican tacos and sold them via food truck as Kogi BBQ, revolutionizing both the food truck scene and cross-cultural cuisine with one fell swoop. Closer to home, the 20-plus-year movement known as Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine also blended the farm to table approach originally embraced by European cuisine, blended with both European and Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino techniques and flavors for our own unique cuisine.

Again, my main issue is to respect what you’re trying to emulate, and that starts with the name of the dish. There are poké restaurants stateside that use “poki” and “poké” interchangeably, explaining the “poki” spelling as a way to get customers to pronounce it properly instead of pronouncing it like bloke or joke. Well that’s still a joke as “poki” is still Gumby’s orange-colored equine buddy.

Moreover, poké started and remains as a predominantly fresh raw seafood dish, so please don’t try to pass off less-than-fresh fish or crustaceans as poké. If it doesn’t smell like the ocean, but more like your aquarium filter, it can’t be served raw. And this is my own personal opinion, but even raw fish that has been treated with a tasteless, odorless USDA- or FDA- approved gas can approach that less-than-pristine quality. Basically, that gas is carbon monoxide, which binds to the myoglobin in tuna flesh maintaining that rosy red color. Therefore, even tuna that’s gone a little south can appear as fresh as tuna caught the same day, so the only true test is tasting and smelling it.

Lastly, although the poké and poké bowl craze seems to be on the rise, please only call it poké if it’s a close approximation of the original poké. Adding edamame (green soybeans) and sea salad on top the bowl? That’s OK. Searing thin slice of tuna and placing it over salad greens? That’s a tataki salad. Searing salmon and placing it over quinoa with avocado and corn? That’s a Southwest quinoa salad with salmon, but not poké.

Closer to Home

Local entertainment and lifestyle Website Frolic Hawaii organized the inaugural Honolulu PokéFest back in July featuring poké creations from 15 different local restaurants. More than 700 attendees participated in this inaugural event, which had participants getting bowls of plain or sushi rice, then visiting one or all 15 vendors to create their own poké bowls. My favorites for the evening were Chef Jon Matsubara of Bloomingdale’s Forty Carrots Maui Nui Venison Poké, with crispy sun chokes, inamona and umami (savory) mayo; Eating House 1849’s “Poké and Poi with fresh ahi and poi, pickled ogo, onion, sea asparagus and chili pepper water and Tamashiro Market’s Limu Ahi Poké.

Some of my favorite renditions of poké, in no particular order, begin with Chef Sam Choy’s original Fried Poké served at his old Kaloko restaurant (which closed years ago). He quickly wok-seared fresh cubes of marlin poké, which I always enjoyed,  over his fried rice with two sunny side eggs. The cubes of seared marlin were akin to tataki sashimi, yet maintained the flavors of the limu, onions and chili pepper found in traditional poké.

Another variation of poké that I only sampled once before the restaurant closed, was the Seared Ribeye Poké at Indigo. The cubes of tender ribeye were quickly seared then tossed with shoyu, limu, sweet and green onions and red cabbage. It almost made me forget about that other red meat, ahi.

Beets (avocado, gorilla ogo, smoked macadamia nuts) at Mud Hen Water in Honolulu offers a new take on poké , the local raw seafood staple. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

There’s another poké variant that doesn’t even have any animal protein, but is anchored by roasted beets. Chef Ed Kenney of Mud Hen Water (the restaurant sits off Waialae Avenue and Waialae translates to the water fowl or mud hen that lives in the river or water) simply lists this dish as Beets on his menu, but the roasted beets are tossed with gorilla ogo (an invasive species) and smoked macadamia nuts on mashed avocado, so it contains the flavors of a good poké.

As for traditional poké, my favorite he’e (tako or octopus) poké comes from none other than our local Marukai Wholesale Mart, and it’s a toss-up between the traditional Onion Tako Poké, which includes sweet onions and a touch of sesame oil or the Japanese inspired Miso Tako Poké, which includes green onions and sweet white miso. As far as Ahi Poké goes, my favorite hails from my hometown in Kane‘ohe at Masa and Joyce with their Shoyu Ahi Poké. The ahi cubes are perfectly cut so that none of the sinew is exposed, and they pack the shoyu-based marinade separately so that the ahi doesn’t get over saturated with the sauce. Of course, I did sample enenue (rudderfish) poké years ago, which supposedly is a traditional poké from Lahaina, Maui. Because enenue only gorge on limu, the flesh takes on a distinct, strong seaweed flavor. To makes matter even more challenging, the traditional poké leaves the skin on the cubes of fish, which is as chewy as fish skin gets. Bizarre Foods poké at the very least.

So if you want to try your hand at creating your own poké in the upper 49, simply go to the Noh Foods Website where they sell packets with dried limu, Hawaiian salt and chili pepper to create your own poké … the challenge will be finding your own supply of fresh fish …

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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