PARIS >> From the leafy boulevards of Paris to the cobbled streets of Madrid, as far south as Rome and as far north as Stockholm, poke has become the a la mode lunch for the hip and young in European capitals. Poke, often spelled in Europe with an accent over the “e” to avoid mispronunciation, is all the rage.
In Paris, roughly 20 restaurants focus on the dish. London and Madrid are home to 14 each, and Berlin features nine. Even Ikea offers a poke bowl to shoppers at some of its locations in Sweden. Restaurants like Ono Loa Poke (Madrid), Shaka Poke (Paris) and Sons of Mana (Berlin), dish out dozens of bowls each day to keen young Europeans eager for their fix of “Hawaiian” cuisine.
The poke of Europe does not resemble its cousins in Hawaii, however. Ingredients like raspberries, quinoa and raw chia seeds make regular appearances in poke here. In fact, poke often doesn’t involve fish at all. Various chicken, falafel or tofu dishes — still called poke bowls — are common on European restaurant menus.
But does that really matter? Hawaii chef Sam Choy says no.
“I’m so pleased that all the way out to Stockholm they have poke,” Choy said.
The chef, who has built a career spreading awareness of poke beyond the islands, sees no issue in Europeans creating poke dishes that depart from the Hawaii norm. He noted that countless famous chefs have piggybacked off of each other to build new cuisines, especially in Hawaii.
He’s OK with it, so long as new wave poke doesn’t cross the line into cultural appropriation (in that vein he decries attempts by a Chicago chain to trademark the name “Aloha Poke”).
AT POKE STORE in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, a chic business district that encompasses upscale department stores and the Paris Opera, passersby stared at the colorful bowls a friend and I had ordered. The poke was nothing like what you might find at Foodland or Safeway, displayed in the long metal trays anyone from Hawaii knows well.
One bowl — called the Waikiki — featured raw red cabbage, avocado and edamame nestled next to a very modest portion of unseasoned raw salmon over a bed of rice. The Kailua had chicken as its main protein (no fish involved), and a third, the Hapuna, had neither fish nor meat — it was just a mix of rice and raw veggies.
When I saw that one bowl was called the Polulu Valley (not a typo), I asked the owner, Massi Nawel, how she came up with the Hawaiian names.
“Online research,” she said with a smile.
A young French couple next to us devoured their bowls, both variations on salmon drizzled with a Poke Store signature sauce — sweet soy, ginger sesame and Sriracha mayonnaise (all homemade, I was assured).
Eyva Cibrelis-Octaville, one half of the couple, said she liked poke bowls because, “it’s like a salad. It’s raw, it’s fresh, it’s healthy.” But she added with a smirk that “bobo people” — the French equivalent of hipsters with means — are the main poke audience in France.
For Nawel, opening a poke restaurant made sense. People working in the neighborhood are always looking for healthy lunch options, she said. What’s more, France’s culinary culture is changing alongside the tastes of the population. Young chefs swap creamy sauces and heavy meats for fresh, bright dishes that put fresh vegetables in the spotlight.
Nawel has never had poke in Hawaii — I suspect few European poke proprietors have made the trek to the islands for taste tests. But no one here seems to mind.
Where European and Hawaiian poke diverge most obviously is in approach. In Hawaii, shoppers often purchase their fish-centric poke by the pound, ready-made, but Europeans see it as more of a build-it-yourself meal. Start with the base — white or brown rice, quinoa, even kale. Then, choose a protein — sometimes fish, but almost as often chicken, falafel, tofu or nothing at all.
From there come the toppings — some common ones are mango, cabbage, pumpkin seeds, pineapple, chia seeds, shredded carrots, avocado and sliced radishes. Dress it with a squeeze of lime and some vinaigrette and voila! — a Euro poke bowl.
AFTER TRYING many Euro poke bowls, I confronted the question I think many from Hawaii would ask: Aren’t these just salads with a tropical twist?
Despite the veggie-first approach many take, I find the answer to be no.
Europeans may find poke bowls akin to salads, insofar as they’re raw and fresh. But there’s a key distinction, and it has nothing to do with fish, or the lack thereof. It’s the bed of rice. In Hawaii, fish is the star, seasoned and dressed with chunks of onion, strands of limu, chili peppers, perhaps a bit of inamona.
In Europe, the fish — if it’s there at all — is treated more as a topping. It’s often unseasoned and almost on equal ground to the sliced cucumbers or chunks of pineapple sitting next to it. The bed of rice, however, is constant (aside from the occasional kale option), and would never be found as the base of a salad.
It’s hard to say exactly when poke became trendy in Europe. I began noticing poke shops in European Union cities three or four years ago. What is clear is that today, the poke bowl is a favorite business lunch. On workdays from noon to 2 p.m., hordes of young corporate types clad in wingtips and heels wait in line for their Hawaiian bite at Poke Store or any of eight other poke restaurants in the 9th arrondissement.
Parisians shell out $12 to $15 for a poke bowl, expensive, given the fact that the weightiest ingredient is rice. By my best guess, I got about 4 ounces of fish in the bowls I tried, which means for a pound of fish I could be paying $50 or more.
Of course, I’d also get all the accoutrements that come in it, but I think my point is clear. The next time the price of shoyu poke goes up above $20 per pound at your local shop, remember that it could be much worse.
Makana Eyre, a freelance writer based in Paris, was born and raised in Hawaii.