The Beach Issue

Hey Poke a-Way

Poke — sometimes spelled poké with the accent, and always pronounced poh-kay — is a Hawaiian seafood delicacy that has evolved over the centuries, one ingredient at a time. At its most basic, poke is diced, marinated fish over rice. (The word literally means “to slice.”) And it all started with hungry fishermen on a boat.

Draw a line from from California to Canberra, and cross it with one from China to Chile to create an X, and right where the two lines intersect, that’s Hawaii. Because the islands are at the crossroads of many diverse cultures, its cuisine is unlike any in the world — ever evolving and ever expanding. And one of its most celebrated dishes — poke — is a testament to this. Like all Hawaiian fare, the seafood delicacy has changed slowly but inexorably over the centuries, one ingredient at a time, one flavor at a time, and attracting one fan at a time until the world had no choice but to look up and take notice. These days on the mainland, you’d be hard-pressed to go a mile without crossing one poke shop or another, and you need not even go that far: Your local Rouses offers poke in its sushi section.

At its most basic, poke is diced, marinated fish served over rice. (The word literally means “to slice.”) If that sounds like the sort of thing guaranteed to appeal to the Gulf Coast palate, you are exactly correct, says Michael Westbook, the director of deli, cold cuts and sushi for Rouses Markets. “In our part of the country, we saw shoppers jump on poke much faster than the rest of the U.S. — even more than California, where poke first arrived from Hawaii.”

Poke — sometimes spelled poké with the accent, and always pronounced poh-kay — was born on the Pacific hundreds of years ago as a solution to a basic problem for fishermen: hunger while working on the water. Hard workers pulled nets from the sea, sunup to sundown, and on their boats they had rice, fish — and appetites. One knife and one bowl later, a Hawaiian delicacy was born. The dish changed gradually over time as it encountered different peoples — soy sauce and other marinades were eventually introduced to the preparation. In that sense, poke is like the gumbo of Hawaii: a living cuisine made a thousand and one different ways and influenced by a thousand and one different cultures, and yet somehow always the same.

When poke arrived on the continent, it took the West Coast by storm, and soon began cropping up in major East Coast cities. It was natural, then, that when it arrived on the Gulf Coast, the food capital of the country, it would yet again be transformed. Poke is deceptively simple: easy to prepare yet requiring a specialist’s skill to chop and cut the fish just right.

Westbrook first encountered poke in Hawaii, and brought it to Rouses a couple of years ago. “We were seeing it pop up on restaurant menus,” he says. “It had worked its way from one coast to the other, seeing serious popularity, and we went full bore with it in our sushi section, offering poke bowls to our shoppers.” The Deep South is well-suited for making poke because of the region’s bounty of ingredients that are natural to the dish — we already love every element of it — and Rouses set its trained sushi chefs on really tailoring the dish for the local markets.

In Hawaii, traditional shops sell poke bowls tossed together and ready to go, usually with some onion and soy sauce. Rouses sells poke the same way: grab-and-go bowls that are made fresh daily, with sushi rice topped with tuna or salmon, and a sauce of soy, vinaigrette and sesame oil. Some stores will even make you a custom poke bowl, with additional protein options such as crabmeat, spicy baby shrimp and, of course, crawfish. In addition, you can pick and choose from such veggies as seaweed salad, sesame seeds, lettuce, fried onion, green onion and edamame. Just name what you want, and they will prepare it right there.

“Our area has such a distinct palate, and we cater to that,” says Westbrook. “Tuna and salmon are our most popular bowls by far.” He says that customers have embraced the dish because you just get a lot of bang for your buck: it is inexpensive and filling. More than that, he adds, it is an incredibly nutritious cuisine. “It’s a healthy, clean product, and it sells extremely well because of it.”

Poke became exceedingly popular not long after COVID-19 swept across the country. After we had all gorged ourselves from stress eating, and wore out our grills while doing yard work for the 40th day in a row, it’s like the South collectively decided that it needed something light and refreshing, and poke hit the spot.

“We’re really seeing that category grow — more, even, than the rest of the country, and a lot of that is because we were already so seafood driven,” says Westbrook, referring to the Gulf Coast’s natural affinity for seafood but also to the sushi rolls and nigiri available at Rouses.

Eusebio Gongora, the co-owner of Baton Rouge restaurant Southfin Southern Poké, says that the shelter-in-place mandate led to a whole new group of poke fans. “People were saying, you know, wow this is totally different — this is new — this is fun. Poke is prepared with all fresh ingredients, so just by its nature, it is healthy. It’s a dish that is not saturated with sugars and salts and things of that nature, because in poke you want those fresh ingredients to speak for themselves.”

And speak they have, as the dish’s wildfire-like popularity reveals. The story of poke is one of change and growth, and chefs are just getting started in fusing, elevating and pushing forward the Hawaiian-born classic with different, local styles of cuisine. And with the bounty of seafood we enjoy on the Gulf Coast, there’s no end to the delicious poke combinations we can create.