Lesser-known Hawaiian fish go mainstream.
Say Aloha to Hawaiian cuisine, which—along with the popular poke—has been enjoying a phenomenal explosion as of late. New poke shops continue to open up from coast to coast, while many chefs are revisiting authentic island dishes, breaking away from simply Spam or the 90’s-era Asian “fusion” creations that mainlanders might think of when picturing Hawaiian food.
Native Hawaiians can’t help but find it a touch amusing, but they’re happy about the widespread embrace. When it comes to poke in particular, those who have lived in Hawaii are so used to eating the raw fish dish on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and seeing it at every grocery store and corner shop, that its recent media attention is akin to peanut butter and jelly suddenly becoming the next big thing.
“Poke in many ways is the entry to other Hawaiian food,” says Chef Mikala Brennan, owner of Hula Girl Bar and Grill, the former food truck-turned-full-service restaurant and bar in Washington, D.C. Chef Brennan couldn’t be more thrilled about the recent Hawaiian food renaissance. Brennan grew up on the island of Oahu after her mother, then a Pan Am flight attendant, met her father on the beach—and the rest was history.
“Because people have enjoyed trending dishes like ahi tuna tartare, crudo, and ceviche, we have already had many introductions to raw seafood, and so eating poke is less of a leap of faith for consumers,” she says. “And it seems all of these things have naturally led to the recent poke craze.”
For the record: it’s pronounced pok-ee. Not poke, as in the verb to nudge, or even, pok-ay, explains Chef Brennan, who has been guilty of the latter. The sudden addition of an accent over the e, as in poké, also baffles her and other native Hawaiians whom she knows.
Essentially a raw fish salad, classic poke has a few common elements: diced raw aku, an oilier tuna; ahi tuna (yellowfin) or octopus marinated in soy sauce; sesame oil; and green onions. Sometimes limu or other seaweed is added, along wifth seeds or nuts (in Hawaii, kukui or candlenut) for crunch, and chilies or wasabi for heat.
At Hula Girl, Chef Brennan offers a classic version with ahi tuna chunks, sesame oil, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and a little chili oil, along with hijiki seaweed and—if she can get it—limu, an indigenous Hawaiian seaweed that’s more similar to a sea bean with some crunch. She’ll serve the dish in bowl form, either by itself or atop sushi rice or a Korean-style watercress salad, with pickled daikon, carrot, kimchi, cucumbers, and watercress—for a little more pop of color. Masago fish roe is sometimes used for a little extra umami flavor, a pop of texture, and its bright orange color.
For an octopus poke, Brennan lightly poaches the seafood and then grills it over a wood-fired grill before tossing it with some sesame oil, lemon, soy sauce, and green onions. Brennan also serves lomi salmon, which is not poke, but is a cured fish salad of sorts. At Hula Girl, she cures the salmon with Hawaiian sea salt and tosses it with sweet onions, tomatoes, and a touch of sesame oil and chili water.
When serving poke, as one might suspect, it’s important to work with very trusted, reputable seafood purveyors who can get the freshest fish possible.
Chef Chung Chow of Noreetuh in New York City serves poke as a starter. He swaps ahi tuna for bigeye tuna, another prevalent tuna from the Pacific Ocean that is known for its firm and meaty, rich taste when served raw. The tuna is mixed with umami-rich seaweed, macadamia nuts, and pickled jalapeños—giving it some crunch and heat. Another bigeye tuna poke comes mixed with Chinese spicy miso, tosaka and ogo, both Japanese seaweeds. He has also served a cooked shrimp poke with cucumber, wasabi, pearl onion, and a yuzu marinade.
Chef Michael Slavin, culinary director for Houlihan’s and its concepts J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood, Bristol Seafood Grill, Devon Seafood Grill, and Devon Seafood + Steaks, likewise swaps ahi tuna for bigeye, which he sees as the next “hot” tuna. His poke features the tuna mixed with sesame oil and seeds, sriracha pepper flakes, sea kelp, macadamia nuts, thinly sliced candied ginger, and a dollop of yuzu-avocado mayo that is garnished with pea shoots and served with spiced wonton chips.
Beyond poke, Hawaii is a breeding ground (literally) for some amazing and unique fish that are less well known to mainlanders. Thanks to progressive and reputable seafood purveyors, gaining access to these species is becoming easier than ever before. What’s more, trusted seafood purveyors source from sustainable fisheries and farmers to make sure they are not contributing to overfishing or damaging the ecosystems. This is even better news for chefs wanting to experiment with unusual types of fish, and the smaller supply adds a little mystique and intrigue to the menu.
For Chef Slavin, relying on personal relationships with these fishmongers and seafood suppliers allows him to bring fresh seafood daily to restaurants in landlocked cities. Typically, he can only get a limited supply of the more unusual Hawaiian species, so he focuses on preparing the fish as simply as possible to showcase its uniqueness.
Most recently, he’s been experimenting with monchong fish, which is a little harder to find but has a higher fat content that helps the fish stand up well to grilling. Slavin lightly seasons the fish with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh ground pepper, and grills the fish over mesquite wood to add a smoky, earthy flavor without muddying the rich fish flavor with too much spice.
He’s also been sourcing hapuku, or wreckfish, which he says has a white, firm super-flaky texture when gently cooked, similar to silky black sea bass. Because it is difficult to catch, the fish can be a little pricy and hard to procure.
Slavin compares hebi, a Hawaiian spearfish, to swordfish—but adds that it’s not as firm and is more delicate and pinker in color. Brennan also uses Hebi, in sushi grade form, and then prepares her classic poke with the fish for a denser, meatier taste and texture. For the poke, she’ll also uses kampachi, a boutique yellowtail that’s sustainably farm-raised off the Kona Coast on the Big Island. To showcase its slightly sweet and delicate flavor, she’ll swap out the soy sauce for a lighter yuzu dressing, adding a little pickled radish and macadamia nuts.
Opakapaka, a Hawaiian pink snapper, also makes for an interesting, simply prepared fish—but it can be expensive to source and chefs must make sure they’re actually getting pink, not red, snapper, Slavin cautions. He also likes opah, Hawaiian moonfish, but it can be tricky to cook because of its leanness. “It’s important not to overcook this fish,” he says, noting the fish appears red when raw, but turns white when cooked.
As more seafood purveyors are able to source sustainably caught or farmed fish from the waters around Hawaii, chefs will continue experimenting with new species for their poke and other Hawaiian-inspired dishes, looking beyond the ubiquitous ahi tuna or mahi mahi.