A Brief History of Poke in Hawaii

Poke (pronounced poh-kay, rhymes with okay) literally means “to cut crosswise into pieces.” It’s a simple dish, made of chopped seafood, generally tuna, marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, and mixed with onion. But, you’ll find many variations of this when you visit poke shops, and grocery stores, around Hawai’i. Octopus (tako) and mussels are two common options, and spicing it up with wasabi and/or kimchee, are also popular variations.

It’s believed that poke was first prepared by native Polynesians centuries before Western travelers arrived on the islands. Initially, it was made with raw reef fish, seasoned with sea salt and seaweed, and combined with crushed candlenut. Salting of the fish was for, both, flavor and, more importantly, preserving the fish.

Most historians agree that it wasn’t until the 1960’s and ’70s, that the name “poke” was given to the dish we, currently, recognize as poke. The naming of poke coincided with ahi tuna becoming more readily available. Ahi’s bright pink hue was far more aesthetically pleasing than dull, grey reef fish and it tasted better. Chef Sam Choy, one of the early purveyors of the Hawai’i Regional Cuisine movement of the early ’90s was instrumental in bringing poke to the masses. In 1991, he launched his first poke contest, featuring poke recipes from across the state. The contest showed chefs, and home cooks, just how inventive they could be with poke. The contest is still an annual event held in March.

Today, Hawai’i’s beloved poke can be found across the country and around the world. While it a may be a food “trend” to some, it’s a part of the lifestyle here in Hawai’i, and is served everywhere from football tailgates to high-end weddings. If you want to try poke on Maui, check out our Best Poke in Grocery Stores and Shops guide.

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