Sushi was once considered unimaginable to most Americans—who in their right mind would want to eat raw fish?—but similar to how sushi made its way into the mainstream, poke is following in its footsteps decades later.
Poke, a diced raw fish specialty, originates from Hawaii. Traditionally, it’s made using fresh, uncooked ahi tuna, combined with sea salt, seaweed, and roasted and crushed kukui nut. In Hawaii, it’s long been sold by the pound from deli counters just like potato salad or tubs of olives, and is popular at picnics and at parties, where it’s often served as part of a “mixed plate,” or larger plate lunch of Hawaiian food.
According to Martha Cheng, author of The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way to Eat Fish, the concept of poke, which means “to slice or to cut crosswise into pieces,” originated with native Hawaiians prior to Captain James Cook landing on the islands in the eighteenth century. “Native Hawaiians would prepare i’a maka (raw fish) chopping up reef fish (the striped and brightly colored fish you see when snorkeling in Hawai’i), bones and all. They would season it with sea salt dried in the sun, limu (seaweed) and ‘inamona (toasted and crushed kukui nut or candlenut,” says Cheng. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the dish really gained popularity in Hawaii and came to be associated with the preparation we know now.
Starting around 2015, poke became increasingly available across the continental United States as poke-focused chains began to spring up nationwide. Poke was sold by the scoop before being served over a bed of rice and or salad greens. In its newer format, poke resided at the intersection of sushi, rice bowls, and salad bars, its popularity coinciding with the rise of keto and low-carb diets. Adding to its appeal, these poke bowls were customizable for each customer and generally priced more affordably than sushi.
In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter reported a tenfold increase in poke establishments over two years. Market research firm Datassential observed the term “poke bowl” had grown by 167 percent on menus from 2015-2019, and predicted poke would continue to grow another 47 percent on menus overall by 2023. Another chain, Aloha Poke, has announced plans to open 100 new outlets by 2022.
While the early boom of poke shops has seen some busts with the exit of chains like FireFin and Freestyle Poke, today poke is well on its way to becoming as commonplace as supermarket sushi. It’s still available at many fast-casual spots, delis, big box stores like Costco, and even chain restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory and Red Lobster. In addition to being made with all kinds of seafood, there are also vegetarian and vegan versions of poke made with ingredients such as tofu or beets.
Today most mainland poke shops feature a fast-casual build-your-own bowl experience. Customers choose a base, a poke, and various optional toppings like edamame, jalapeños, cucumber, seaweed salad, and even things like pineapple and corn to add to a scoop or two of fresh fish. Instagram-friendly, fast, fresh, healthy and relatively inexpensive, poke was almost destined to be a hit. Opines Cheng, “When I see poke trending now in the continental U.S. I wonder, what took so long? Hawaiians have long known the pleasures of seasoned raw seafood.”
Here are just a few places where you can get poke in San Francisco:
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