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Poke (pronounced poh keh) is a traditional Hawaiian dish that could become more common on the mainland. Best described as a fish salad, poke is comprised of raw fish—typically yellow-fin tuna—rice, seaweed, garnishes like green onions and nuts, and spices.
“This is a Hawaiian-born-culture food that was seasoned with very light seasonings: ginger, a little bit of soy sauce, maybe a little bit of garlic, and that’s about it,” says Michael Phillips, the founder and CEO of the Hawaii-based fast casual Coconut’s Fish Café.
Two years ago, Phillips started offering poke as an appetizer at the Maui location. The dish was so popular that he added it as an entrée-sized bowl within two weeks. To this day it remains the most ordered item, second only to the fish tacos. Coconut’s, which began an aggressive expansion plan in late 2014, already has one franchisee in Dallas serving the dish and a licensee in Arizona will soon follow suit.
While Phillips says he is surprised that a semi-raw fish item has become a popular option in mainland America so quickly, he is also confused by its appeal back home.
“I didn’t understand the popularity. Every grocery store in the Hawaiian Islands has poke,” Phillips says. Despite increasing its fish orders, the Maui restaurant still runs out of poke on a regular basis.
Several Costco stores across the continental U.S. have also started carrying poke because, Phillips says, the brand recognizes that it can turn a profit on a dish that is both healthy and exotic.
But some of the renditions he has encountered are a fry cry from the original poke, which emphasizes premium fish and minimal seasoning. He adds that historically, Hawaiians used a variety of fish, not just ahi, and incorporated other indigent ingredients. Newer versions, Phillips says, sound like cheeseburgers with foods like bacon or barbecue sauce overwhelming the flavor.
“The authentic Hawaiian way is not to over-mess with it,” he says.
Nevertheless, Phillips is a businessman, and he concedes that Coconut’s could offer new flavors in the future. An R&D team is testing new combinations, and Phillips himself is visiting grocery stores around closing time to see how the different varieties of poke measured up against one another.
“The one that’s almost out is the one that’s most popular,” he says.
By Nicole Duncan