The Koloa Fish Market is a mainstay in the town of Koloa, Kauai. It is a small, simple storefront, located at the end of a strip of shops along the road that runs through town. Inside, plate lunches are offered, and I am told they are rather good, but I am here for the ahi poke.
Poke (pronounced poh-kay) has become wildly popular on the mainland, but Hawaii did it first and continues to do it best. Staring at a case full of choices at the fish market, I am completely clueless. I ask for the most popular, mispronouncing the dish’s name in the process. The clerk politely corrects me, gives me a few of options, and at last I choose the avocado ahi poke over a bowl of rice. Behold, a poke bowl. I settle in under a tree in town for a makeshift picnic. The dish is every bit as delicious as I had hoped.
Hawaiian poke is classically understood as pieces of raw fish, often ahi tuna, cut into cubes and tossed with a dressing of some kind. However, the original meaning of the Hawaiian word poke is “to cut crosswise,” so the main ingredient used is really only limited to the cook’s imagination. Many different varieties of fish can be used, and tofu, avocado, or beets make for tasty vegetarian variations. When using the freshest ingredients, each variation presents a unique sweetness that, in combination with the salty flavors added and the soft bed of white rice below, is addictive.
So, when you find yourself in Hawaii, pay a visit to a local fish market, and indulge in poke. Until then, try your hand at two easy recipes for shoyu-style poke: one made with classic ahi tuna and the other a vegan version made with red beets, originally created by my husband entertain my island obsession. Both recipes are naturally gluten-free when using gluten-free tamari in substitution for traditional soy sauce.
Classic and Vegan Poke Bowls
Main Ingredient: choice of one
Classic Version: 1 lb “sushi grade” ahi tuna* (see note below), cut into small, bite-sized cubes
Vegan Version: 1 lb red beets, steamed, cooled, peeled, and cut into small, bite-sized cubes
Dressing (per 1 lb of main ingredient):
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp gluten-free tamari (or substitute regular soy sauce)
1 tsp rice vinegar
pinch (~1/4 tsp) sugar
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped finely
steamed white rice
2 green onions, white and green parts sliced thinly, 1 tbsp reserved for serving
~1 tbsp mixed black and white sesame seeds (one or the other is fine too), plus more to serve
In a large bowl whisk together ingredients for the dressing. Add tuna or beets, green onions (all but 1 tbsp), and sesame seeds, and toss gently to combine. Cover and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes. Serve over a scoop of white rice, and top with additional green onions and sesame seeds. Enjoy!
*I note “sushi grade” above because that is how the freshest ahi tuna is often marketed. However, there are no official regulations for what constitutes “sushi grade.” Your best and safest source is a trustworthy fishmonger at your local fish market or grocery store. You are looking for ahi tuna that can be consumed raw, and they can tell you which product is best to use and has been handled correctly. Often, you may be directed flash-frozen versions. This article provides more detailed information.
Lisa Stadler, ambitious cook and curious traveler, calls Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home. She is a firm believer in choosing your own adventure in every regard.