“EVERYONE walks into this place thinking it’s a salad bar,” Aaron Lim, the co-founder of The Fish Bowl, reveals with a chuckle. The restaurant, which opened its doors in August last year, was the first in Malaysia to sell poke (pronounced poh-kay), a traditional Hawaiian dish. In less than six months, at least half a dozen other poke shops have sprouted up across the Klang Valley.
Malaysia is only the latest country to catch poke fever. Over the last two years the number of F&B establishments serving up poke in both New York City and Los Angeles have skyrocketed. The phenomenon surfed onto the shores of the United Kingdom too and now it’s repeating itself on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Australia.
But is poke just another food trend which will sink into the deep end the way cupcakes, cronuts and frozen yogurt did?
Poke has been a part of the Hawaiian staple for centuries. In their language, the word poke means “cut crosswise into pieces”. Traditionally made from fresh reef fish, seasoned with roasted kukui nut (candlenut), Hawaiian rock salt and limu (local seaweed), the dish evolved over time, mirroring the multi-cultural mix of peoples on the island.
There was a sharp decline in Hawaii’s native population after European and American settlers arrived on the island; a great number were wiped out by diseases brought by these new settlers. But the population of Hawaii increased in the early 1800s as a result of mass migration by Japanese people who left their homes in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Kumamoto to work on the island’s sugar plantations.
By the early 1900s, an influx of Filipino workers joined them, followed by the later wave of migration of Chinese, Koreans, Portuguese and Puerto Ricans.
In The Food Of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, author Rachel Laudan notes the heavy Japanese influence in poke. “The Hawaiians contributed the name and the seasoning with salt and seaweed, while their taste for fresh reef fish lost ground to tuna, and lomiing or eating whole to cutting into blocks; the Japanese contributed seasonings of soya sauce and preference for deep-ocean fish,” she writes, referring to ahi tuna (yellowfin tuna) which replaced reef fish as the main ingredient in poke.
For decades, Hawaiians grew up eating poke, which was something of a casual snack where the freshest, cube-sized raw tuna marinated in soya sauce and sesame oil, would be stacked onto a bed of freshly cooked rice. The dish itself never made it to recipe books until the 1970s, a time which Laudan observes was when green onions and hot chilli were added. But the dish’s popularity was elevated only 20 years later when Chef Sam Choy (often referred to as the Godfather of Hawaiian cuisine) brought the dish to another level by organising the very first Poke Festival and recipe contest in 1991.
The dish has stood the test of time and is still a startling beauty on its own: It is a fusion, of culture, colours, textures and tastes. Poke shops in Hawaii and around the world serve the dish in a myriad of variations — from the more traditional tasting ahi tuna to creamy salmon marinated in togarashi sauce or siracha as well as an assortment of sides and garnishes including endamame, corn, mangoes, walnuts, sesame seeds, fish roe, pickled ginger, avocado, seaweed and chilli flakes among the many.
Poke, as it’s known to the world now, is easily one of the most versatile dishes on the planet.
FISH TAKING FLIGHT
So, when the poke trend kicked off in 2015, the question on everyone’s lips was: Why did it take so long?
In the United States, the increase in poke’s popularity, in part, was attributed to the migration of Hawaiians to the mainland in the early 2000s. As Vince Dixon of Eater Magazine points out, poke was also feeding into the American craving for fresh and healthy food which wouldn’t burn a hole in their pockets anymore. And as it seems, they weren’t the only ones who were looking for something similar.
“When we first opened, we had a lot of customers who’d previously studied overseas who were looking for poke, but couldn’t find it here,” says Nick Alec, one of the three founders of Paperfish, a poke shop nestled in the neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur. “There’s a growing demand for healthy food and there’s a whole trend of people wanting to lead healthier lives,” he says, adding that a bowl of poke has everything from protein to carbs, greens and good fatty acids.
Ryan Thoo, a fellow founder at Paperfish, chips in enthusiastically: “When most people think healthy food, they think salads. We wanted to change the perception that healthy food doesn’t have to be bland.”
But the appeal of poke lies in more than just a fresh, healthy meal. “It’s just got everything in a bowl,” adds Michelle Liu and Joel Foong, founders of Fin in Publika, KL. The couple, who had their first taste of poke while on a hiking trip in Sydney, decided to open a poke joint after realising there was nothing quite like it in Malaysia. “It was clean, fresh, healthy, not fussed but filling and most importantly, delicious!” says Joel, who describes his first impression of poke as nothing short of brilliant.
Lim concurs. “When you eat poke, you’ll feel full but not heavy so it’s really a whole meal on its own,” he says, pointing out that The Fish Bowl lets patrons decide how they want to build their poke bowl.
RESPECTING A HERITAGE
It’s true what they say — poke is love at first bite. Sweet, salty, tangy and spicy flavours dance on your tongue almost instantly. The different textures like the crunch of the baby cucumbers and sesame seeds complement the tenderness of the fresh fish.
While the rest of the world is falling head over heels with the dish, some Hawaiians are feeling otherwise. For Hawaiian chef Mark Noguchi, putting a dish from his homeland in the limelight is good, but respecting its heritage would be even better. “We’re hardcore connected to our food, and if you’re not connected spiritually to our culture, there’s no amount of Instagram posts or Snapchats that’s going to teach you who we are,” he says in an article on First We Feast.
Considering it “cultural slander”, Noguchi goes on to explain that retailers must understand where their fish is sourced, how sustainable it is and how to respect the dish. “For us, it was really important to understand where the dish came from. We may have many variations of the dish but it’s really about respecting the flavour,” Liu confides.
Before opening Fin, both Liu and Foong spent half a year researching, conceptualising and making different pokes to find the right balance. “Hawaiians will be so insulted if you called poke deconstructed sushi,” adds Liu, chuckling.
For both the founders at The Fish Bowl and Paperfish, having consumers ask questions is a good sign as it shows that people are taking an interest in what they’re eating. “We had a 6-year old asking us how we prepare our quinoa!” says Alec laughing.
A majority of people who have poke for the first time are well informed but just as curious. “People are weary about what they put in their mouths, and we’re more than happy to spread the awareness on what poke is, where it comes from, how we source our fish and how beneficial it can be,” he adds.
HERE TO STAY?
“There’s a fine line between a trend and a fad,” writes Carey Polis of Bon Appetite Magazine. “Trends are longer-lasting and more impactful,” he says citing olive oil, which was considered gourmet oil in the 1970s and ‘80s, but has now become an oil used in cooking healthy meals. “It becomes a part of your eating culture. Trends do that. Fads don’t.”
For Malaysian poke founders, the trend is something that will continue to grip consumers in the country. “For one, we love our rice,” says Alec with a smile, adding that Malaysians are very adventurous when it comes to trying new things.
For Lim, the biggest indicator that the trend will stay is the popularity of Japanese food in the country. “People have grown accustomed to eating raw fish and Malaysians just love sashimi. So it’s something I see having a real future here.”
In a couple of years, we’ll see if poke rush is still on our shores, or if it becomes a mere memory. But considering the explosion of flavours in a bite, coupled with its clean, light but filling magic, poke might just stay around for as long as it’s been around.