NBC: The Surfer’s Sashimi- How Hawaiian Poke Conquered the Mainland

NBC (by Sarah Bennett):

The lunchtime line at Pokéworks in Midtown Manhattan has been constant since it opened three months ago. Every weekday, New Yorkers wearing puffy coats and woolen hats spill out of the tiny storefront, waiting for the chance to order a customized bowl of chopped raw fish atop a mound of sticky rice.

Poke, the Hawaiian invention ubiquitous on the islands, where it serves as the unofficial state snack, might seem like an odd meal to pair with a frigid East Coast winter. But over the last few years, the traditional dish — which tops fresh, lightly marinated seafood with condiments like limu and roasted kukui nuts — has transformed from pre-batched versions available by the pound at Hawaii’s beach-side liquor and grocery stores into the United States’ next build-your-own, meal-in-a-bowl movement.

Enjoying something Hawaiian in New York helps transport the mind a bit, to a place more beachfront,” Pokéworks partner Kevin Hsu told NBC News. “The moment you sit in your office and you’re digging through a poke bowl, you feel like you’re on vacation.

Nostalgia for Hawaiian vacations may be one reason why the hunger for poke has grown so great in such a short amount of time, but poke has been quietly mounting a mainstream takeover ever since its invention.

To ancient Hawaiians, cutting up the catch of the day and tossing it with salt and seaweed harvested from the ocean was an exercise in sustenance. Subsequent waves of contact and immigration — from Captain Cook to the sugar plantation era — influenced poke by infusing it with sauces, toppings, and flavors of Europe, Japan, and other Asian countries.

The dish was first introduced to many Americans via fine-dining chefs, who — following the Hawaiian-food-obsessed lead of Hawaii native son Sam Choy in the ’90s — found poke an approachable Asian-fusion appetizer, an alternative to crudo and ceviche. Sushi had already been introduced to American palates by then and many diners felt comfortable (and classy) eating Asian-style raw fish. Poke was a logical next step.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that fast-casual spots dedicated to serving authentic Hawaiian-style poke first opened on the mainland. In Southern California, where many of these early businesses opened, bringing flavors from the Pacific to the masses was less about launching a trend and more of a natural outgrowth of the region’s historic population of Hawaiians and native Islanders.

Aside from a few dissenters, Hawaiians seem excited that the “surfer’s sashimi” is spreading to new audiences across the country, even if it’s at the hands of a non-traditional delivery method. As a cuisine that has itself evolved over centuries of shifting cultural influence, Hawaiian food seems ever-ripe for re-interpretations, which is good because the poke revolution shows no signs of slowing down.

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