The poke recipe that has taken much of the world by storm in recent years is the shoyu-style, aka soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion, ginger, sesame seeds, chili peppers, salt, pepper, and sometimes kukui. Shoyu isn’t my favorite poke from the ChoiceMart counter, or anywhere else. I much prefer the spicy ahi, which includes mayo, hot sauce and green onions. I also enjoy a creamy wasabi version with pistachios. Third place goes to the so-called Hawai’ian-style, which includes limu seaweed, salt, and ground kukui nut.
I opened the glass door to the fridge, and looked at the poke. The edges of the fish cubes were sharp, and the cut faces glossy, meaning the cuts were fresh. It looked much better than what I’d seen earlier that day in Hilo, at the venerable Suisan Fish Market. The 110 year-old establishment has its own fleet of boats, and has been distributing poke island-wide since long before it was popular off-island. The magnificent poke bar at ChoiceMart, no less, is stocked by an early-morning delivery across the Island from Suisan. But an early-morning batch of poke will be soft around the edges by mid-afternoon, no matter how recently the fish was caught. Once the fish is cubed, the clock starts ticking.
I asked the man, “Do you have anything to serve the poke with, like maybe…”
“Rice,” we both said at the same time. “You want a poke bowl?” he asked, reaching toward me in a manner that said hand over the poke.
Please, I replied, as I relinquished the poke, trying in vain to contain my excitement.
He returned moments later with a styrofoam take-out box, and placed it on the bar, along with a caddy stocked with bottles of soy and Tabasco sauce, slender yellow packets of Best Foods mayo, among other seasonings that were not relevant to my interests. Inside the box: two scoops of rice, my poke, and a plastic dish of seasonings: small pieces of nori, sesame seeds, salt, and particles of dried fish.
Other than the fish, it contained little more than salt and minced green and sweet onions. But with fish that fresh, and freshly cut, less is more. And with the Tabasco and mayo from the caddy I was able to massage the poke and seasonings into a spectacular spicy ahi with a decidedly Japanese feel.
“What do you call this flavor of poke?” I asked.
“Oh,” said the man, with the makings of a grin around his goatee. “We just call that Hawai’ian style.”
But unlike the ChoiceMart Hawai’ian-style, this version didn’t have any kukui nuts or limu. Only that seaweed seasoning, which I asked my host about.
“Oh, that’s furikaki,” he said with a growing grin.
“Oh,” I said, “you mean the Japanese stuff?”
“Yeah,” he said, and straight-up started laughing like I just told him a funny joke. It was a big, booming laugh that shook the room.
It was no joke when the CEO of Suisan, of Japanese descent, was interned during the war. To this day, many Japanese practices pervade the company, which guarantees its boats never go out for more than two days, so the fish is never older than that when cut.
Because at a certain point, fresh is no longer best. Fresh poke made from frozen fish is better than old poke made from fresh fish.
I mentioned to the man that it didn’t look like his poke was made at seven that morning. “That’s just three hours old,” he confirmed. I took another pack America’s southernmost poke from the Coke fridge, and brought it home to the rental house, where I ate a second poke bowl on salad greens.
The next morning, the cut edges of the leftover poke cubes were less sharp, and the sheen on the faces had gone flat. I squeezed in juice from a fresh Tahitian lime from the tree out back, and called it good. Good ceviche, that is.
When I return to the parallel universe of Montana, I’ll be seeking out ahi that was frozen on the boat, preferably in steaks that were sliced across the grain. I’ll be looking to thaw and cube that ahi steak, and make some poke that’s more than okey-dokey.