Story by Genevive Bjorn
Fresh, raw ‘ahi tossed with sesame oil, toasted macadamia nuts, chili pepper and green onion—a pretty typical ingredient list for poke. But the inspiration—and the winning ingredient—was a simple squeeze of lime. The acid made the flavors of the dish really pop, earning chef James Harris from Orange County the top award at last year’s I Love Poke festival in San Diego.
Simplicity and freshness are what define great poke, the “sashimi” of Hawai‘i. And just as sashimi went global in the ’80s, it was only a matter of time before Hawai‘i’s most cherished pupu found its way to palates beyond. “People in California go nuts over fresh, raw fish,” says Harris, who sampled his first poke at Fish Express in Lihu‘e while honeymooning on Kaua‘i. “Mainlanders visit Hawai‘i and bring back a love for the culture— especially for poke.”
This year’s poke festival, the fourth in what’s become an annual fishfest, will feature fifteen top San Diego-area chefs offering their best in both the “traditional” and “any kine” categories. Any kine is where the chefs unleash their creativity: Last year’s entries included ingredients like wild salmon, Spam, pork belly, champagne and Pop Rocks. Anything goes as long as the poke includes either meat or fish.
Chef Antonio Friscia won last year’s any kine with a poke using only sustainable seafood—‘ahi, scallops and tako (octopus)—with mango, Serrano chili, orange zest, yuzu and furikake topped with an indulgent dollop of uni (sea urchin). “Hawai‘i is a place I love and keep close to my heart,” says Friscia. “I try to live the aloha lifestyle in California, and I cook in a way that helps people feel happy.”
Harris and Friscia return to defend their titles this May. But they’ll have to bring their A-game against thirteen other chefs and to impress a panel of judges at least half of whom grew up on poke; past judges have included Raymond Noh of Noh Foods, O‘ahu fisherman Uncle Wayne Shimizu and local singer Anuhea. And those who care about the sea and the creatures in it needn’t feel badly: All of the some two thousand pounds of fish to be consumed will come from healthy, well-managed fisheries with the highest ratings on seawatch.gov.