Tips & Advices

What is poke? Everything you need to know about this Hawaiian dish

From 2023’s winning recipe to fun facts, see why Hawaii’s legendary fish dish is more popular than ever

Ahi Poke Lumpia Roll, winner of Kauai Poke Fest 2023Ahi Poke Lumpia Roll, winner of Kauai Poke Fest 2023 — Photo courtesy of Kōloa Landing Resort

Poke has been exploding in popularity over the past few years. A traditional Hawaiian specialty that serves up fresh ocean flavors, poke is usually made with marinated fresh fish (typically ahi tuna) that’s been cubed or diced and is served in a bowl over rice or salad with a variety of toppings. The word poke — pronounced PO-kay — means “to slice” or “cut” in Hawaiian.

Sam Choy is a legendary Hawaiian chef who hosts the TV series “Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen” and has authored over 20 cookbooks. He operates several mainland restaurants and is often referred to as the “Godfather of Poke.” He founded Kauai Poke Fest, an annual food festival that’s held at the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Chef Sam Choy, also known as the "Godfather of Poke"Chef Sam Choy, also known as the “Godfather of Poke” — Photo courtesy of Kōloa Landing Resort

Growing up in a small town on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, Choy’s earliest food memory is eating poke by the ocean — made with a local fisherman’s catch of the day.

Chef Choy explains, “I loved poke from a very young age and that’s why this annual poke festival means so much to me. Poke is essentially ‘Hawaii’s food’ and brings a taste of the islands to the rest of the world. Our festival is unique because it welcomes everyone — from home cooks to culinary experts — and you don’t need to own a restaurant to participate. You’ll find the simplest to the most innovative recipes.”

The 2023 Kauai Poke Fest featured celebrity chef judges Ronnie Rainwater and Aarón Sánchez. The festival also included a cooking demo by Chef Choy, Hawaiian entertainment, and 20 participants who made a multitude of delicious, innovative, and beautifully presented poke offerings — and served their dishes to over 800 poke-loving guests.

What’s usually in a poke bowl?

Anatta's Twisted Thai Poke Version 2, 2023 People's Poke AwardAnatta’s Twisted Thai Poke Version 2, 2023 People’s Poke Award — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

A typical Hawaiian-style poke bowl features cubes of marinated sushi-grade ahi tuna over rice or salad, and a variation of the following toppings: sweet onions, soy sauce, limu (seaweed), and red chili pepper flakes. Sometimes it’s accompanied by taro chips or crackers. Poke is always served cold.

Over the years, innovative chefs and creative culinary enthusiasts have added a wide variety of spices and seasonings, giving this dish some zest, heat, and crunch. Today, poke is popular far beyond Hawaii and you’ll find other fish used, such as salmon and octopus, while seasonings often range from delicate and subtle to bold and fiery.

Choy says that changing one single ingredient in a poke bowl can shift the balance of flavors entirely. He encourages everyone to experiment with their poke recipes and enjoy how the textures and flavors intermingle to create truly unique variations.

Where did the poke bowl originate?

Contestant Kepa Kruse's Deconstructed Poke, second place winner at Kauai Poke Fest 2023Contestant Kepa Kruse’s Deconstructed Poke, second place winner at Kauai Poke Fest 2023 — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

Many cultures have their own versions of poke bowls, but dining on seasoned raw fish is not linked to any one geographic location. Historically, poke has its roots in early Polynesia, and it’s considered similar to Latin America’s ceviche and Tahiti’s poisson cru, where the fish is “cooked” with lime juice. Poke is such a versatile dish that it’s not unusual for it to reflect different types of cuisine and styles.

According to Choy, “Poke has been a quintessential local island dish that’s fast and easy to prepare, and it’s a favorite at beach parties and local get-togethers. As its popularity now reaches far beyond the islands, today poke is truly a food that’s enjoyed across the globe and helps to educate the world about Hawaiian cuisine and culture.”

Tips for making the best-tasting poke bowl

Taekyung poke dressed in white soyTaekyung poke dressed in white soy — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

Choy’s Kauai Poke Fest always highlights inventive and delicious recipes from across the islands and beyond. He offers several tips for ensuring your poke is truly delicious.

1. Always use fresh fish to make a poke bowl. It’s very important! The fresher, the better.

2. Be sure not to over-season your poke bowl, because you really want to taste the freshness of the fish.

3. Keep it balanced. The perfect blend and balance of ingredients will ensure the best-tasting poke recipe.

Kauai Poke Fest 2023’s winning poke recipe

TV host John Veneri, chef Sam Choy, and Chef Chris Choy leading a demo at the Kauai Poke FestTV host John Veneri, chef Sam Choy, and Chef Chris Choy leading a demo at the Kauai Poke Fest — Photo courtesy of Keri Cooper

The Kauai Poke Fest’s winner — the recipe that received the highest score from the panel of judges — was Kauai-based amateur chef Grecean Manuel’s recipe, Ahi Poke Lumpia. Here’s the recipe.

Ahi Poke Lumpia

Ingredients

Poke mix:

  • 1 pound of fresh, sushi-grade ahi tuna (cubed or chopped)

  • Lumpia wrapper

  • Crispy chili garlic oil (can be purchased pre-made in a jar)

  • Diced avocados

  • Hawaiian salt

  • Tobiko

  • Diced Maui onions

  • Chopped green onions

Toppings:

Avocado calamansi crema:

Directions:

  • Blend all ingredients for the crema to make the dressing.

  • Fry the wild rice to a crisp and pulverize it in a food processor. Save as topping.

  • Cut lumpia wrappers in half and roll them, using a metal mold, before frying them in hot oil until crispy.

  • Cube the fish and mix it with the rest of the poke mix ingredients.

  • Pipe the poke mix into the lumpia shells.

  • Top with the pulverized and fried wild rice and more tobiko if desired.

  • Garnish with avocado crema and half of a calamansi.

How to attend the Kauai Poke Fest and where to stay

The Koloa Landing Resort on Kauai, HawaiiThe Koloa Landing Resort on Kauai, Hawaii — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

The Kauai Poke Festival is held at the luxurious Koloa Landing Resort at Kauai’s Poipu Beach. Steps from the ocean, this resort is also the home of an award-winning hotel pool. Booking a room here means having an easy walk to the festival, plus, you can enjoy a meal at Choy’s legendary Holoholo Grill while you’re there.

Pro tip: The festival attracts over 800 attendees. Tickets tend to sell out, so book yours in advance! Once there, it’s best to arrive early and arrive hungry, because you’ll have 20 (or more!) different types of poke to taste at the event. While the dates for 2024’s event have yet to be announced, tickets and more details will become available here.

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