Six months before opening Tanioka’s Seafoods & Catering in Waipahu in 1978, Mel Tanioka tested his poke recipes on his wife’s co-workers.
“It was for limu poke. That was the most popular kind at the time,” he said.
CALABASH & COOKS
A benefit for the Malama Learning Center features dishes by culinary students from Campbell, Kapolei, Moanalua, Radford, Waianae and Waipahu high schools, plus chefs from Roy’s Ko Olina and Firehouse food truck:
» Where: Kapolei High School, 91-5007 Kapolei Parkway
» When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 12
» Tickets: $40 advance, $50 at the door, $25 students, $20 ages 10 and under, $75 VIP
» To buy: Visit malamalearningcenter.org.
» Info: Call 305-8287, email email@example.com.
Since then Tanioka, whose refrigerated case now showcases some 30 preparations, has learned a thing or two about good poke. The key, beyond quality fish, he said, begins with salt.
“No matter what else you add, the salt’s gotta be right — not too salty or too bland. You can add other things, like chili pepper or inamona (roasted kukui nut meat), but whenever you start poke, you start with the salt.”
Poke’s been on the mind of many recently, since the New York Times ran an article about “poké” makers in that city. It incited strong reaction from folks across the country with isle ties, who opined that the article failed to reference the roots of the dish.
High-school culinary students won’t run into that problem when they take a stab at creating top-notch poke in a competition March 12 at Kapolei High School. Chef Eddie Mafnas, a caterer and operator of the Firehouse food truck, will prep them on the fundamentals of poke making, from proper sourcing to identification, selection and safe processing of fish. The competition precedes the Calabash & Cooks fundraiser that has the students cooking other dishes to benefit Malama Learning Center.
Tanioka finally did settle on a successful recipe, but he says good poke requires more than that.
“You need good hands,” he said. “When you mix, it should be a light mix — a caring, light mix. You know how someone blends a cake and it always turns out fluffy? Just like that, you gotta treat the poke gently so it’s fluffy and fresh, not stuck together and smashed.
“You gotta get a lot of love in the poke.”
It doesn’t hurt if that love starts with the ocean. Tanioka grew up in a fishing family in Wahiawa.
“I was a full-time surfer after graduation,” he said with a chuckle. “Surfing, diving and shoreline fishing go together — it’s good fun.”
LIkewise, Kealoha Domingo grew up by the water, on the North Shore. At the time Tanioka was opening his shop, Kealoha was spending his youth diving with his uncles and making poke right on the beach.
“It was part of my upbringing,” said the cultural practitioner, 44, who specializes in Hawaiian cuisine.
Poke refers to the way the fish is cut, he said. “‘Poke poke’ means cut in cubes.” Domingo edifies the light mixing Tanioka describes by pointing out that it is distinct from “lomi,” a massaging or squeezing of a product to create a mashed texture, as in lomi salmon.
While many today consider limu, inamona and salt to be traditional, Domingo says his elders ate poke doused in various sauces, made from the ink sac of the octopus, fish innards and the juices of salted sea urchin cured for several weeks.
“It tastes like the ocean; it’s a very Hawaiian flavor, an iodine flavor,” he said. Having eaten those sauces growing up, Domingo has acquired a taste for them, but added, “Today, folks don’t have a palate for it anymore.”
So he says he understands that evolution is inevitable, citing the incorporation of round and green onions that have become standard in poke.
“There are so many different cultural bases here, people will put on their own twists,” he said, but it is possible to adapt poke in a thoughtful way. That starts with the acknowledgement of where the dish originated.
Kauai chef Mark Oyama agrees.
“Things are blowing up. I think it’s getting a little bit too crazy,” he said of current poke variations appearing on the mainland. “With creativity you can do whatever. It might be great-tasting but you must be respectful. As a chef-instructor, I think it’s important to go back to the root of a food. From there you can grow.”
Oyama, 48, is a culinary instructor at Kauai Community College and executive chef at Mark’s Place restaurant and Contemporary Flavors Catering. He’s also a partner at Da Hawaiian Poke Co., a new venue in Kapahulu.
Like Tanioka and Domingo, Oyama’s ties to fish and the ocean started in his youth, when he went diving and spearfishing every weekend with an uncle.
“We would give everybody fish and have a potluck every weekend,” he said. “My uncle would fry fish, make sashimi and mix poke. His work was at a plantation, but everyone loved what he cooked. He influenced me to become a chef.”
Oyama gives a nod to chef Sam Choy, who introduced poke to the world and allowed more people to enjoy the dish. He said he understands how changes come about organically.
“Food evolves and changes according to what ingredients people are comfortable with and what they have in the area,” he said. “We like our poke traditional — with salt, inamona and limu — but still, we add shoyu, sesame oil, chili peppers.
“The most important thing about poke is good, fresh fish and that we respect those qualities,” he added. “When you have good-quality fish, you add flavors, but you don’t want to mask the flavor of that fish. That’s how we show the people of the world what good poke is all about.”