On paper, and even in person, poke looks strange.
Pronounced “poh-kay,” it is a traditional Hawaiian food that might be described as sushi deconstructed, consisting of a bowl of cooked rice topped with uncooked cubed ahi tuna flavored with sauce and served with edible, marinated seaweed.
Guy Roeseler, owner of a Hawaiian deli and grocery store in Wauwatosa, explained that in its original form, poke consisted of fresh fish (“poke” meaning to slice or cut in Hawaiian) with ground kukui nut (“like a cashew”) combined with “limu manauea” (a very delicate grass seaweed traditionally harvested off the coast of Maui that tastes “like the essence of the sea”), salt and native peppers.
“Before Western contact, locals could catch a fish, throw in some nuts, seaweed, salt and pepper and could eat it on the beach,” said Roeseler, co-owner of Ono Kine Grindz, 7215 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa.
Although he isn’t a native of the islands (“I’m German and Scottish,” he said), Roeseler has become something of an authority on the cuisine. His partner in business and life, David Lau, is Cantonese, born in Hawaii. Together in 2010 they opened Ono Kine Grindz (which translates as “delicious specialty foods”), a deli and grocery store offering items from the Hawaiian islands.
Before moving forward, a word about the word “poke.” Many readers may have encountered the word spelled “poké,” the accent used to assist non-Hawaiian speakers with the “aay” sound that differentiates it from poke. However, it has been suggested by Hawaiian native speakers that adding the accent over the “e” is culturally insensitive. For this reason, the News chooses to use the word in its accentless form.
With or without the accent, poke is a cold-food trend that has heated up on the mainland in recent years.
Poke was introduced to the mainland U.S. first along the West Coast and from there to New York, Chicago and other large metropolitan areas. “Poke is even becoming trendy in Hawaii,” Roeseler said.
In the past two years, poke has also become a hot cold-food trend in Wisconsin. A current count of poke-dedicated eateries in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa numbers over 10. The dish is also offered in various forms in Asian restaurants as well.
Roeseler said Ono Kine Grindz keeps poke traditional while incorporating a few modern ingredient amenities. His marinade includes soy sauce, Kilauea Fire Hawaiian hot sauce, Sriracha, a lot of fresh lemon juice, salt and sesame oil.
To be authentic, Roeseler says he checked to be sure Hawaiians had and used hot peppers in their poke. “We also elaborated a bit because they didn’t originally use sesame or soy,” he said.
Roeseler added that any meaty kind of fish will do for poke, including tuna, salmon, Chilean sea bass or crab.
This reporter first encountered poke last October at lunch on Milwaukee’s east side. There, a friend wanted to introduce me to FreshFin, one of his favorite poke restaurants, and was surprised to see a brand new poke eatery right across the street.
As a longtime fan of sushi and sashimi, particularly ahi tuna, poke was an easy sell. As expected, I enjoyed the non-fishy but flavorful taste of the tuna and the interesting marinade with which it had been combined.
So when this same friend, Tom Gill, also shared some of his homemade poke, I was extra intrigued. Not only was this a dish that could be procured at trending restaurants on Milwaukee’s east side, but apparently could be reproduced in the comfort of one’s own kitchen.
A self-styled foodie and recent visitor to the Hawaiian islands, Gill said his dish consisted of ahi tuna, pickled ginger, chopped onion, wasabi, teriyaki, soy sauce and coconut aminos.
He procured the previously frozen tuna and thawed steaks from a local grocery store. “The consistency of the tuna is the star,” Gill said.
Recreating tuna poke in Kenosha is equally easy, providing, of course, you locate a safe fish source. Most diners are justifiably wary of raw fish, and experts agree that fresh-frozen is the only way to go.
“The (safe food handling) regulation is to freeze fish for up to a year,” notes Chotik Saykawlard, store manager of Fresh Thyme, 7100 Green Bay Road. “Sushi-grade” tuna is fish that has been frozen and then thawed; you’re not going to get fresh fish from the ocean.”
In the meat department at Fresh Thyme, frozen ahi tuna is thawed and combined with a house marinade and sold by the pound. The marinades come in both mild and spicy.
At the store’s sushi counter, pre-made poke bowls are also available. These consist of cooked rice topped with small bits of fresh cubed salmon and ahi tuna, some veggies, a soy-based sauce and a spicy mayonnaise sauce.
Saykawlard said that when he makes his own at home, sometimes he’ll defrost a tuna steak and just combine it with fresh lemon juice and seaweed salad. “Then I toss it on top of rice prepared with rice vinegar,” he said.
“Poke is a very healthy food, so I’m glad to see it’s taking off,” Roeseler said. “I turned my mom on to poke and now she has poke parties.”