Culinary Journeys, Episode 2: The Secret to Hawaiian Poke
Hawaii, the awe inspiring 50th state in the US, is much more than a tropical beach paradise sporting rainforests, volcanoes, waterfalls, and lava rock desserts. Located in the Pacific Ocean, just west of Los Angeles, Hawaii consists of six main islands and is home to a traveler’s paradise for both relaxation and adventure. It owns its complex identity by being a developed tourist summit amidst high rise hotels marking Waikiki Beach and keeping its ancient Polynesian culture intact.
We recently visited Oahu, where Hawaiian music, luaus, and mai tais are all up for grabs. Upon arrival, I was immediately full of infectious “aloha” spirit, captured in both greetings and farewells. My first aloha moment was with local Chef Gio Mazzarella. Gio is an exceptional young man, cooking by night and conducting Hawaii Food Tour’s Famous Hole-in-the-Wall Tour™ by day–he’s also quite telegenic, sporting a beautiful smile, and full of gratitude and positivity that shines on camera. Gio has worked for both James Beard nominated chefs and local kitchens in Hawaii lending himself to great food experience.
Gio was excited to share how Honolulu’s predominant South Pacific and Asian cultures influence the food across his beloved island. We agreed to seek out inspiration surrounding poke, a Hawaiian signature staple, fresh from the market and served up at two of his favorite local joints.
So what’s poke?
As Hawaii’s identity continues to adapt and change so does its integral food staple. Poke, a word that means “to slice, or cut crosswise into pieces,” in its purest form, is simply chopped raw fish, seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce. In Hawaii, you’ll find poke on almost every restaurant menu, as well as at seafood and deli counters at grocery stores. This isn’t a fleeting trend. In fact, poke has deep roots in Hawaiian culture. Before refrigeration, native Hawaiians prepared i‘a maka (raw fish) and chopped up reef fish seasoned by dried salt, limu (or seaweed) and ʻinamona (crushed kukui nut). This process seasoned and preserved the fish. Poke gained true popularity in the 1970s and has taken off exponentially since then where multicultural influences settled in naturally and now, endless varieties await your discovery from spicy mayo and kimchi to oyster sauce and everything in between. Poke is certainly here to stay, trending not only in Hawaii but internationally.
Gio and I made our first stop to Yama Fish Market (2332 Young St, Honolulu, HI 96826). Locals call this takeout spot a must: the kalua pig is smoky and fork-tender and the pokes are among the island’s best. This acclaimed fish market serves up both cold and hot dishes and was my first deep dive into everyday Hawaiian cuisine. Local comfort/plate lunch style ranged from dried Ahi, smoked salmon and tako (octopus) and poke. With a dozen of different poke varietals, it was almost impossible to choose.
Our next stop was Nico’s on Pier 38 (1129 N. Nimitz Highway, Honolulu, HI 96817). Everything is top quality and fresh from the source at this restaurant next to Honolulu Pier–think classy interior right on the waterfront. They offer an auction fresh trio of poke dependent on what the market has on hand including; Ahi (Yellowfin Tuna), Aku (Skip Jack Tuna), and Au (Marlin), as the most popular. I was salivating in anticipation of filling my simple white rice canvas bowl with so many choices in the seafood counter. Poke flavorings of spicy crab, spicy tuna, and everything from Lomi Lomi salmon to clams had my stomach growling.
For our most traditional poke, we headed to Kaka’ako Waterfront Park where Gio whipped up his favorite preparation of poke. Soaking in the sun, salty air, and enjoying some ono grinds (good eats) was the epitome of Gio’s warm hospitality and culinary adventures.
After leaving my new friend Gio at the dock, I was excited to work with the Crystal culinary team to create a trio of poke on three distinct spoons. Classic ahi tuna swirled with a modicum of soy sauce. Adding Maui onion and a bit of ginger for brightness was a no brainer. The real creativity came in with king crab. Caviar, truffles and shaved 24 carat gold flakes infused luxury and extravagance, not to mention exploding flavor. The third spoon was the final kiss with bold flavor profiles. We incorporated small, fresh cubes of Hamachi tuna dressed in bonito dressing for creaminess, and soy glaze with shredded seaweed/leek salad on top for distinct texture.
It was important we went straight to our in-house expert, Chef Danny from Umi Uma on board for his nod of approval before serving to our onboard guests at Waterside.
Poke certainly wouldn’t exist without the islands’ meld of culture and reverence to the ocean passed down through generations. Learning the history of the food and trying so many variations helped me understand how poke is a way of life in Hawaii. It certainly encouraged our choice of Trio of Poke for the passengers.
I am filled with gratitude for an amazing journey and enchanted by the body of water that surrounds me, I leave you with this final Aloha!
Until next time, I’m chef Jon Ashton.
Be sure to check back on April 2nd for the next installment of my Culinary Journey with Crystal Cruises.