The “Godfather of Poke” dishes on his favorite fish.
At age 70, Sam Choy minces no words, only fish, as he fulfills his personal dream of spreading the gospel of Hawaii’s beloved raw seafood delicacy, poke, to every corner of the world. “If you cook tuna, you might as well save your money and buy a can,” he says. And if you serve poke, this man—who has dedicated his life to the dish—would really, really just like you to learn to pronounce it properly. “Poh-kay,” he says slowly. “In the Philippines if you say ‘poh-kee,’ that’s a bad word, a body part. So, you want to make sure you say ‘poh-kay.’”
Growing up on Oahu’s North Shore, Choy fell in love with poke “at first bite,” when he ate it, made from fish pulled directly out of the nearby bay, under the watchful eye of some old local fishermen. “I just took a liking to it, the freshness, the sweetness,” he remembers. The word poke means to cut into cubes, and each time he took a bite of those cubes, he marveled at the dish. “This is amazing,” he thought. “You can’t get any fresher.”
Choy grew up to become one of his state’s most famous chefs, opening a slew of restaurants across the islands, participating in the group that founded the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, and winning a James Beard Foundation American Classics award. He devoted his career to his favorite dish, earning himself the nickname “The Godfather of Poke,” for his zealous promotion of it. “I’ve always been a person who served poke—whether it was at the National Fish Fry in Washington D.C., or Taste of Los Angeles, or down South,” says Choy. “I’ve always marched to put poke on my menu.” Throughout his appearances on Food Network television shows, and as he expanded to the mainland with his Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max truck and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, Choy worked to share his beloved poke with an increasingly large audience.
It worked: poke and restaurants devoted to poke bowls are one of the biggest food trends of the last decade. The healthfulness, bright colors, and big flavors appealed to audiences around the country and the world—with the added bonus of reminding people of Hawaii and time they might have spent there. Fast casual restaurants spun the dish into a near-infinite array of options, but Choy still looks back to the original styles of poke he grew up eating in Hawaii to find the best kinds—and the secrets to making the best poke at home.
Choy’s favorite type of poke is what he calls “Before Captain Cook Poke,” referring to the style that people, theoretically, made prior to the arrival of colonizing European forces and any ingredients they brought with them: it uses only fish, sea salt, sea salad, and inamona—candlenut. “That’s a traditional Hawaiian poke right there,” he says. “Let the fish be the hero.”
Using fresh fish is important, says Choy, as is balancing the ingredients, but he has one big piece of advice for folks making poke at home: put it in the refrigerator. “The real magic to it is to serve it cold, nice and cold.”
Alongside its transition from a casual everyday kind of dish for families in Hawaii, with a bowl on the table at meals and events, to a staple of cities around the world, Choy says one of the major changes in poke in his lifetime comes in the type of fish used to make it. “We did a lot of reef fishes back then,” he says. Stuff they could catch close to shore, just throwing nets out, like ‘ō’io (bonefish), from which they scraped the meat from the bones with a spoon and turned it into lomi-style poke. These days, he likes to use tuna, wahoo, even salmon.
Those are the same fish he likes to catch when he goes fishing himself. “That’s the ultimate goal, you know,” he says. “Go out to the ocean, catch your own fish, bring it in, and make a big bowl of poke.” From that young age when he first got bowled over by the flavor of just-caught fish transformed into poke, Choy’s connection with the dish ran much deeper than just enjoying the food and even studying how to make it, and included how to care for the ocean from which it came and how not to overfish the star ingredients. He learned how to take only what they needed, what they could eat before it would go bad, and then how to prepare it simply, so that the fish was the highlight.
Choy relishes in the moniker “Godfather of Poke,” but as much as he loves the raw seafood delicacy of his home state, he takes nearly as much pride in another fish-related legacy: both his sons grew up to become captains on no-kill sportfishing boats that tag and release fish on the watch list. “We did a lot of fishing; we went on picnics on the beach,” he says, and the result was they were exposed to it at a very young age. “That’s why they fell in love with what they do now.” The connections between fish, fishing, and eating poke are part of what makes the dish so much a part of Hawaii’s culture.
“It’s a really huge part of Hawaii that’s out there, all over the world,” Choy says, proud of how widespread the dish now is. “It’s a real feather in my cap to have been raised that way and see it become what it is today.” His next goal is for people to go beyond just wanting to eat the dish to understanding some of the history behind it—and, of course, how to pronounce it properly. “I want to get the education out there,” says Choy. “This is the next journey.”
1 lb. fresh ahi (yellowfin tuna), cut into cubes
3 Tbsp. shoyu
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. sriracha or 1 or 2 fresh hot peppers of your choice/how hot you want, minced
¼ cup minced onions
¼ cup minced or sliced green onions
Pinch of sea salt
In a medium mixing bowl, start with the tuna, add a pinch of salt, shoyu, and sesame oil, followed by the sriracha or peppers, then all your onions and mix well. Make sure you chill and serve cold. Enjoy.
3 Tbsp. shoyu (soy sauce)
3 Tbsp. sweet chile sauce
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. sriracha
¼ cup roasted sesame seeds
1 block firm tofu, cut into cubes
¼ cup minced onions
¼ cup minced green onions
Start by making the sauce in a mixing bowl with the shoyu, sweet chile sauce, sesame oil, sriracha, and sesame seeds. Arrange your tofu and onions into a serving bowl then pour the sauce over the top and serve cold. Enjoy.