Ahi Poke: The Simple Hawaiian Dish That's Best Made at Home

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

When I think of tuna salad, my mind doesn't leap to the mayo-based canned-tuna salads of my youth. It doesn't even jump to the classic Niçoise salad with oil-poached tuna and olives. Nope. My first thought is give me the poke.

Poke (pronounced poh-keh), a raw-fish salad, is like the hamburger of Hawaii, ubiquitous at family gatherings, parties, tailgates, and supermarket delis across the islands. I've seen the Hawaiian word poke translated variously as "to chop" or "to cut crosswise," in reference to the way in which the fish is cut, so perhaps it's more accurate to say that poke is like the chopped salad of Hawaii.

It's also accurate to say that it's on the "foods that are way too cool" list right now in 2016. It's popping up on menus all over the place, with various cheffy twists. Let's hope that it doesn't lose its simple nature in the process, because poke, when it comes down to it, is exceedingly simple.

Modern versions of the dish are heavily influenced by Japanese and other Asian cultures and feature chunks of lean ahi (yellowfin) tuna seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sweet Maui onions, often with a sprinkling of sesame seeds or scallions. More traditional versions would be seasoned with native limu, a type of sea algae, along with crushed kukui nuts (candlenuts). But, of course, there are just as many variations on poke on the islands as there are variations on hamburgers on the mainland.

I'm not kidding when I say that it's sold in supermarket delis. Walk into any supermarket in Hawaii and you'll see an array of at least a half dozen different poke options in the glass display case, in the same way that a New York deli might have bins of egg salad or pasta salad. Poke with soy sauce. Octopus poke with wasabi. Salmon poke with fish roe. Vegetarian avocado poke. Tuna poke with kimchi, and everything in between.

To be perfectly frank—and I know I risk the wrath of some of our Hawaiian readers here—I've never found a supermarket poke that I thought was particularly good. Poke, like nearly all salads, is best eaten when freshly mixed and only lightly rested, to let the ingredients meld without over-marinating the fish or letting the flavors turn muddy. Restaurants or, better yet, home kitchens (like your own) are where you should head for poke.

This is good news for you, because it means that, so long as you have access to fresh fish, you can make incredible poke at home. This week, I'll be sharing a few different poke recipes with you, but we're going to start with a classic ahi poke. My version features both traditional and modern twists. It's extremely simple to make (think of it like tossing a salad) and uses very few ingredients. Let's focus on those one at a time.

The Tuna

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This is by far the most important ingredient. You must use cleanly butchered, well-handled, well-stored sashimi-grade fish, as you are going to be eating it raw. The category "sashimi-grade" isn't regulated, which means that often you'll find fish labeled for sashimi that looks a little past its prime. On the other hand, you'll also see tuna in supermarkets that is perfectly fresh and could be used for sashimi. The best way to be sure of the quality of the fish is to head to a specialty market with high enough turnover that you can be assured that the fish on display is relatively fresh. Japanese markets are best, as they'll also stock some of the other ingredients we're going to need.

When selecting tuna for poke, I look for pieces that have relatively little connective tissue—the white membranes that separate muscle groups—because this can make the cubes tough and chewy. Deep red, lean meat from the back and sides of the fish (akami in Japanese) is ideal, and I use a sharp knife to cut it first into strips, then into bite-size cubes.

The Onions

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Onion is one of the major ingredients in most poke recipes, and, if you're not careful, it can overpower the fish. The key is to do everything you can to prevent the onions from developing pungent, hot compounds. Starting with the right onions is the first step. Poke is typically made with Maui onions. If you're a real stickler, I suggest hiking up the side of Mount Haleakala on Maui and plucking one of the sweet onions out of the rich volcanic soil yourself for the ultimate poke experience. For the rest of us, any type of sweet onion will do.

Sweet onions, like Maui, Vidalia, Bermuda, and Walla Walla (among others), are not necessarily sweeter than regular yellow onions per se; it's just that they lack the sulfur compounds that give those onions their hot flavor and induce tears. When I make poke at home, I use whatever sweet onion I can find at my local supermarket, usually Vidalia or Walla Walla. If you're unsure about what types of onions are on display, keep this guideline in mind: Sweet onions will typically have a flat, squat profile, while pungent onion varieties will be more globe-shaped.

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The other keys to ensuring that your onions stay sweet and mild are to use an extremely sharp knife when cutting them and not cut them too small. Those hot, pungent compounds don't actually exist in raw onions; they're created from the interaction of precursor chemicals that escape from cells once the onion is cut. The duller your knife, the more cells you crush, the more precursors escape, and the more pungent the onion becomes. Dicing the onion too small will have a similar effect.

For my poke, I also like to use some mild spring onions for double onion flavor.

What About Seaweed?

Your ability to find limu on the mainland lies somewhere between tough and impossible on the difficulty meter, which is why many versions of poke don't include any seaweed or algae at all, or perhaps a sprinkle of nori or furikake at the most. I used to work at a restaurant in Boston where we'd serve a version of poke that was seasoned with hijiki, a Japanese seaweed. When I told my mom about this, she laughed, saying that hijiki is what old folks and convalescents eat because it's supposed to be so healthy.

I guess that's just a bonus, because I think it tastes delicious in poke, and I always keep a bag of dried hijiki in my pantry.

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Besides hijiki, I also add a bit of wakame to my poke. That's the tender green seaweed you know from bowls of miso soup. Both seaweeds come dried and are easily found in Japanese markets. Reconstituting that seaweed is as close as this recipe gets to "real" cooking. It involves soaking the dried seaweeds in hot water for about five minutes, then draining and chopping them.

The Seasoning

That's all of the main ingredients (I told you this was simple, right?). All that's left is to dress them.

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I dress my poke in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds (both black and white, though just white is fine if that's all you have), and a touch of honey to balance out the saltiness of the soy sauce.

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If you plan on serving this for a party, or perhaps on top of rice for a meal, I suggest that you wait until just before serving to toss everything together, then let it rest for a few minutes. It'll taste much brighter and have more diverse textures than poke that's been marinating in the fridge for too long.

Now doesn't that beat your childhood tuna salad?