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Poke Goes Mainstream

Poke, a traditional Hawaiian dish, is a culinary trend

By calling on the freshest seafood and preparing it to order with simple toppings, poke delivers on value and flavour.

Poke (pronounced “poh-kay”) is a Hawaiian dish dating back centuries, when fishermen would cut up the catch of the day and season it with ingredients at hand such as seaweed, sea salt and kukui (candlenuts). As the dish evolved, picking up ingredients such as shoyu and sesame oil from outside cultural influences, it became deeply rooted in the lexicon of Hawaiian comfort food. 

Now poke is so common on the Hawaiin islands that you can find several freshly made varieties at any local grocery store. Poke’s flexibility as well as its health halo and colour palette has propelled this dish into mainstream menus on the mainland in the U.S. And Technomic Inc. projected that poke would emerge as part of 2016’s top five trends for the restaurant industry in Canada—“New Ethnic Niches Flourish.”

“It’s not very often that we see this much activity around a particular dish,” notes Gordon Food Service Corporate Executive Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC.

In its most authentic contemporary form, poke is a dice of raw seafood—typically tuna, but often salmon or shellfish dressed with soy sauce and topped with chopped candlenuts (kukui) or macadamia. Regardless of variety, the seafood’s quality is of utmost importance. Everything should be impeccably fresh and free of gristle. The fish should be buttery soft and taste of the ocean, clean and subtly sweet.  

Be sure to buy from a trusted source as quality grades are based on each packer’s internal standards. “One packer’s AAA quality could be another packer’s A quality,” explains Gordon Food Service Seafood Category Analyst Jennifer Ostrander. “The different grades/sashimi designation mean nothing. What’s important and regulated is parasite destruction, and every packer should have a parasite destruction letter as it applies to tuna.”

Perfecting poke

Keep it simple. Start with the freshest seafood. Adding too many toppings or sauces can drown out the fresh fish taste, but a dash of sweet-salty dressing, or a touch of sesame oil with simple toppings, elevates the fish flavor without obscuring it.  

Deliver on the value equation. Almost exclusively, fast-casual concepts serve their poke on a bed of rice or fresh salad greens; the added bulk satisfies the value equation and turns poke into a quick all-in-one meal. Full-service casual restaurants have the advantage of not having to worry about “bulking up” poke and can serve the dish in its purest form, allowing the fish to shine.  

Prepare to order. Most fast-casual spots toss the fish with the dressing in batches to speed up service. However, Ludwig says with certainty, the difference in quality when poke is prepared to order, cannot be overstated.
The bottom line? Poke is about flavor, not portion size. Using superior, high-quality fish and seafood, properly dressed and not overloaded with toppings, is the key to taking advantage of this menu opportunity with a poke that stands out from the crowd, like our Creamy Mixed Poke Bowl.

Five Ways To Mix and Match Poke

1. Protein. The most popular is tuna (yellowfin or hibachi). Other great options: raw salmon, scallops, cooked crab, lightly poached shrimp or poached octopus.

2. Dressing. Use soy, shoyu or ponzu sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fresh citrus juice, gochujang and chili oil for a range of combinations.

3. Vegetable garnish. Seaweed, cucumber, avocado, edamame, scallion, sweet onion and thinly sliced jalapeños are all common, but stick to one or two at a time.

4. One crunchy element. Macadamia nuts, kukui, peanuts, cashews, fried lotus root, crispy fried onions or shallots enhance poke’s mouthfeel.

5. Final touches. Fish roe (e.g., tobiko), wasabi or Sriracha mayonnaise, sesame seeds, or a sprinkle of furikake seasoning.