These days, you don’t have to cross the Pacific Ocean for poke, a marinated fish salad tracing its origins back to the islands of Hawaii. With its recent rise to fame as a forerunner of the fast-casual food craze, poke bowls have become ubiquitous in America’s trendiest cities. From coast to coast, self-proclaimed foodies enthusiastically post snapshots of colorfully arranged poke bowls, complete with an orchid garnish or artfully rolled bunches of carrots. Its popularity has even reached New Haven where two new poke restaurants opened this spring.
Tucked away in the red brick wall on Audubon is Pokemoto, one of the Elm City’s two poke shops. A minimalistic white sign with the words “Hawaiian poke” peeks out above the entrance, welcoming visitors who seek a taste of paradise. Ordering is simple. Between five signature bowls and a do-it-yourself toppings bar, Pokemoto offers a wide variety of options for regulars and newcomers alike.
Thomas Nguyen, Pokemoto’s owner and a longtime resident of Hamden, said he was inspired to open the restaurant during his time spent living in Hawaii.
“The first time I had [poke], I was like, ‘Whoa, this is mind-blowing,’” he said. “It’s good food.”
Hoping to share the love of poke with his home state, he opened Pokemoto, an assembly-line poke shop with fresh ingredients prepared before the consumer’s eyes. The signature bowls vary from concoctions of wild tuna, sweet onions and cilantro seasoned in mayo to tofu poke consisting of edamame, rice puffs and chili sauce. Alternatively, the build-your-own toppings bar allows patrons to customize their bowls with nontraditional ingredients like corn, avocado and mango.
This service method differs significantly from poke sold on the islands, where premarinated trays of fish come in large scoops over a bowl of rice. Katie Kim, the owner of Pokelicious on Church Street, recognized that, while most mainland adaptations deviate from “authentic” Hawaiian poke, prepping large trays of raw fish for consumers unfamiliar with the dish can be a problem for mainland restaurants.
“If [the food] sold out quickly, it would be fine. . . but for us, we can’t keep it out for hours and hours,” she said.
The do-it-yourself poke bowl is a way to ensure flexibility; it can easily accommodate first-timers wary of new cuisines. Mainland poke shops strive to strike a balance between upholding their understanding of Hawaiian poke and serving a wide demographic of consumers.
“If the food is good, it should be shared,” Ngyuen said.
It is lunch time in Honolulu, Hawaii. A tour bus stops at a small storefront on Kapahulu Avenue, and a horde of hungry tourists shuffles off the bus. Each holding a crumpled map of the islands, the guests approach a narrow entrance to Ono Seafood, one of Hawaii’s most popular poke shops. Much to their dismay, they find themselves at the back of the line. Standing before them are students, workers from nearby construction sites and men in Aloha shirts on break from their office jobs.
Judy and Willy Sakuma founded the restaurant in 1995, selling dried fish, pickled products and only one type of poke. Ono Seafood, which takes its name from the Hawaiian word for “delicious,” prides itself on success anchored in tradition and consistency. Locals refer to it as “Ono’s” and fondly remember a time when it was just an Igloo box under a residential parking garage.
“Back in the day, if you knew of Ono’s, you didn’t tell anyone because Judy would sell out,” Kim Brug, the Sakumas’ daughter, shared in an email with the News. “Now we serve them all! Tourists from all corners, young travelers, seasonal visitors, all kinds.”
With Judy Sakuma’s “old school work ethic and Asian discipline,” Ono’s is representative of a deeper history of cultural fusion in the most diverse state in America. There is an unspoken consensus within the mainland poke scene that “authentic” poke is the poke served in Hawaii — the more authentic, the better. As stated on their respective websites, Wisefish Poke in Chelsea, New York, offers a counter-service experience that “blends relaxed beach-y vibes” into the concrete jungle, and Ohana Poke Co. on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, wants to bring “authentic Hawaiian poke” to their “ohana.” On the sea blue walls are the words: “ohana means family.” Poke restaurants across the country aspire to the mom and pop shop aesthetics of Ono’s, often without a careful consideration of what “authentic” Hawaiian poke really means.
In a 2017 Washington Post article, Mara Judkis shed light on the “unofficial food of Hawaii,” opening with a gentle friendly reminder that poke, no accent, is pronounced “po-kay.” She aimed to prevent any misguided mainlanders from further ruining the dish, one they have already desecrated it by improvising with ridiculous ingredients like “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) or, God forbid, “kale – kale!”
Judkis addressed the conversation about food as a vehicle for cultural appropriation — when is it right to prepare and serve a dish removed from context? And when is it wrong? Judkis presents an impressive list of “homesick Hawaiians” who renounce mainland poke as disrespectful to Hawaiian cultural heritage, as if “you can throw pineapple on anything and call it Hawaiian.”
People from Hawaii do not refer to themselves as “Hawaiian” unless they are ethnically Native Hawaiians. As the Judkis recognized, an imposition of Western spelling or pronunciations on poke directly expropriates Hawaiian culture through linguistic erasure. The history of poke is more complex than modish finger pointing in pop cultural discourse about cultural appropriation.
As a Korean-American immigrant who moved to the United States at the age of 10, Kim of Pokelicious compared Hawaiian poke to Hoe-deopbap, a Korean bibimbap consisting of raw fish and mixed vegetables over a base of steamed rice, or even the Japanese Chirashizushi, a bowl of sashimi and sushi rice.
“I don’t necessarily say to myself, ‘Poke is Hawaiian.’ I define poke as diced cubes [of fish]. For me, I don’t think it’s Hawaiian food. I guess for Hawaiian people, poke is their food, but even they use soy sauce, sesame oil — which are not Hawaiian based ingredients.” Kim explained.
Haylee Kushi ’18 grew up on the Big Island, where “the best place to get poke [is the] KTA Super Stores” or the “fish market, where they haul in a lot of the catches. Super fresh. I grew up loving [poke], like most kids from Hawaii,” she said. “The frustration for a lot of Hawaiian people is that the narrative about native Hawaiians is being controlled by mostly East Asians who are the largest population in Hawaii. So that makes people think that all things like hula, poke, words like hapa — the aesthetics of Hawaiian culture — are Asian.”
“Poke” appears in Native Hawaiian print and oral traditions to mean “to slice, cut crosswise into pieces.” In the modern Hawaiin language, “poke” is used as a noun to indicate a part as in “a phrase that’s a part of a sentence.” Kushi explained.
Extensive studies of Hawaiian culinary history reveal that there is no mention of poke as a traditionally Hawaiian dish. Its usage in reference to the modern style of cuisine does not exist in Hawaiian dictionaries or prominent pidgin glossaries until the 1970s.
“Poke as a widely used Local dish is a Local creation, melding the existent Hawaiian taste for raw fish with the existent Asian, particularly Japanese taste for the same, but coming up with a new synthesis.” Rachel Lauden wrote in “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage.” Poke as we know would not exist without the influence of Asian-American labor migration to Hawaii; it is evidence of socio-ethnic changes within the state that continue to fragment indigenous Hawaiian culture.
The recent surge in the popularity of poke also speaks to a larger cultural trend of caching in the aesthetics of Hawaii: the association of its instagrammable beaches, dancers in grass skirts, Mai Tais by the pool — all representative of a fashionable exoticism.
Any well-intended criticism of poke must acknowledge the complicated history of Hawaii from its colonization to its annexation and statehood. To conflate this narrative would be to distract from a past of Native Hawaiian sovereignty and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In other words, our well-intended simplification of culture may be counteracting the very purpose behind the protection of cultural sensitivity. It is just as important to keenly examine gastronomic trends as it is to sit down to appreciate a good, hearty meal.
Ono Seafood is no bigger than a walk-in closet or a kitchen island countertop. Ordering is simple. You begin by browsing through a selection of beverages from a glass door refrigerator (every meal comes with drink). After choosing between white or brown rice, you carefully deliberate which of the eight “Fresh and Local Style Flavors” will make it into your bowl. At the end of the line, Kim Brug will be waiting at the register with a smile and the question: “chopsticks or fork?” Despite many discussions on the expansion of Ono’s, Brug remains dedicated to continuing her mother’s 24-year legacy on Kapahulu Avenue.
“We design our poke bowl the local kine way and make it with aloha. The trending of poke across the globe has developed a fusion or geographic twist. This is good, but what is real good is knowing our poke is of the OG of poke, old school, pure and simple … how its always been.”