The History of Poke in Hawai‘i
The Pacific Ocean is a diverse ecosystem filled with a wide variety of sea life. Fish, shellfish, and other marine invertebrates are major proteins for the people of the Pacific. Among the most commonly eaten are fish like ʻahi, ʻanae, ʻōpelu, invertebrates like heʻe (octopus), ʻōpae (shrimp), ula (lobster), pāpaʻi (crab), and ʻopihi (limpets).
In Hawaiʻi, the ahupuaʻa system of land management, including bioregions like kai (oceanward and coastal areas), kula (plains or flatland areas), and uka (mountainous areas), provided resources through human interaction and appropriate use. Resources between those areas were shared, and often protein from the ocean would make its way up to peoples who could provide plants food in exchange. While birds and pigs could be used for meat, most of the protein resources came from the ocean, and fresh, raw fish was considered a delicacy. Europeans in the late 18th century observed this and adopted this practice, as recorded by William Ellis:
Raw fish was and still is considered delicious. Europeans who have learned how to enjoy reef fishing occasionally follow the Hawaiian example of taking a bite from the back of a small fish for refreshment on the reef and have been surprised at how good the taste is.
– William Ellis, Captain Cook’s surgeon, notes (21, Vol. II, 167-8)
Fish was often salted with paʻakai (ocean salt) when served, and while fresh flavor was considered important, additional foodstuffs were also included for a full meal. Some of the most common seasonings for raw fish, besides paʻakai, were ʻinamona (roasted kukui nut meat with salt) and limu (different kinds of edible seaweeds).
Including other famous foods like poi (cooked and mashed kalo) and some of the more recent introductions, fruits and vegetables like mango and avocado, poke is now becoming famous worldwide. Making poke begins with preparing your fish by cutting it crosswise into smaller pieces. Although lomi, another method of preparing raw fish, is done another way:
Large fish eaten raw were prepared by mashing the flesh with the fingers, a process called lomi (massage is the nearest meaning), the fish so prepared called iʻa lomi. This process stopped short of mashing, the object being to soften and allow the salt or other flavour to penetrate. If the flesh were not soft enough for lomi, as in the mullet, uouōa, aholehole and weke, it was cut into small slices or chunks, or left whole, and called iʻa nahu pū (fish to bite into).
– Titcomb, M. (1972)
Today, many fish species can be prepared as poke, including freshwater fish like salmon. Tako (heʻe, or octopus), fish cake, and even softshell crab are among other options for the meat. More seasonings available from not only Hawaiʻi, but other parts of the world, especially from Japanese cuisine, have been incorporated into modern-day poke. Kimchi, oyster sauce, wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce) are common in many restaurants and markets as flavoring, and other ingredients like imitation crab, avocado, and chili pepper can be utilized to create your own special flavor combination.
Like many foods, poke is something that can bring people together (although rivalries between flavors or combinations certainly exist!) and is easily shared by many people at a meal. Before you pick up your next batch of poke, let us know where you go and what poke you like to eat!