Poke is the Hawaiian version of sashimi/ceviche. The ancient Hawaiians ate flavored raw ahi tuna in the past, but the current version also draws heavily from the Japanese (sashimi) and Iberian roots of its immigrants as well as recently on Korean influences. The accent aigu in the title is my own addition to clarify pronunciation, although I have sometimes seen it written that way on menus, particularly some places on the mainland that serve it.
Poke is basically chopped fish (usually ahi, yellowfin tuna), sesame oil, soy sauce, seaweed, raw onion, and a little chili pepper. There are then infinite variations on that theme. Current versions can include wasabi and kimchi, for some added flavor and variation. There can be more or less shoyu (soy), different amounts/types of seaweed (limu is the standard), and even bits of roasted nuts (inamona), which you might not recognize as such because they have been pulped. Octopus is probably the second most commonly used fish. Maybe because a lot of the little shops that sell it in Hawai’i were run by Japanese families, the octopus is often written as “tako”, the Japanese name. The Hawaiian name is “he’e”.
Where do you get poke? Hawaiian/Polynesian themed restaurants on the mainland often serve it. Some Japanese restaurants on the west coast serve it, as many Japanese families emigrated to California from Hawaii. In Hawai’i, most resorts will have it on the appetizer menu, where they serve a fairly archetypal version of ahi poke. However, if you want the ‘real’ stuff you need to go to a Hawaiian deli counter. It’s served a bit like potato salad or something on the mainland (although they have plenty of potato salad in Hawaii too). It’s everywhere, from Safeway to Costco. However, I think some of the best places are the small, old school markets, usually which have a Japanese name to the store, as Japanese families often worked as shopkeepers during the plantation periods in Hawaiian history.
I’m going to run down a few of the good spots to get poke on Kaua’i. I like to eat mine with some seaweed salad or cucumber salad (there are many Hawaiian variations on japanese sunomono).
Fish Express in Lihue is a great place. It’s a fish shop, but it attracts a busy crowd for lunch, as they do grilled fish plate lunches (really quite delicious!). Parking can be a bit difficult, and it’s busy, but the fish is excellent. They serve a range of delicious poke types.
In Kapa’a, on the East Side, there is a nice little market, the Pono Market which has some great poke as well. I forgot to take pictures, but it was good.
Down on the south of Kaua’i, in Waimea, there is the Ishihara Market, and old school grocery store with a big deli counter and wide range of poke, along with prepared salads and the like. They had a few kinds of poke (only one ahi and the mussels made it in the picture, but we had a few kinds of tuna), and I liked the ahi kinds I tried quite a bit. The mussel poke was not as appealing, but maybe because I was already full of delicious shave ice.
So overall, some of the places to get poke in Kaua’i. It’s yummy. The tuna has a nice fatty umami richness, but it is also fresh and light at the same time. The seasonings add a range of flavors.
As a side note, there is some belief that perhaps Hawaiian/Polynesian Poke influenced the development of ceviche in Peru through the very early days of trade in the Pacific, which led (through Spanish colonial influence) to ceviche in Mexico. Despite the ubiquity of ceviche on Mexican menus, it is a relatively recent development in food history there, and seems to definitely have been brought from South America (Peru/Ecuador).