Many folks think of supermarket delis when they think of poke, the Hawaiian raw-seafood dish. This is emphatically not the best place to get poke, and neither are any of the trendy restaurants that are popping up in major (and minor) cities all over the mainland US. No, the best place to eat poke is at home, and you could do it by simply following a prescribed recipe (and we've got plenty of good ones), but here's an even easier, tastier idea: Throw a poke party and let the guests do most of the work.
Get yourself a few different types of raw or cooked seafood, set up a spread of aromatics and seasonings along with a few different sauces, and let your guests dress, season, mix, match, eat, and repeat to their hearts' content. Think of it as the grown-up, modernized, tropical-island version of the Taco Tuesdays we grew up with, except with raw fish instead of seasoned ground beef, soy sauce and sesame oil in place of bottled taco sauce, and freshly diced sweet onions and sesame seeds in place of watery shredded iceberg. The spread can be as simple or as complex as you'd like. Just make sure that you include ingredients from each of these categories: fish, aromatics/texture enhancers, and sauces.
Category 1: Fish and Other Seafood
Fresh fish is where most poke starts, and it's going to be the most difficult ingredient for you to find, so it should be the first thing on your list.
Since the fish is going to be eaten raw, your best bet is to head to a Japanese market or a specialty fishmonger who can guarantee the safety of your fish. If it's intended for sashimi, you're good. Poke can be made with any fish suitable for raw consumption, but I think it's best with richer fish, such as hamachi, tuna (particularly oilier varieties like skipjack or amberjack, though ahi is a classic and delicious choice), salmon, or mackerel. (Horse mackerel—shima aji in Japanese—is especially tasty.)
Milder-flavored fish, like fluke, flounder, sea bass, or sea bream, can also be delicious, though they should be dressed more lightly when you're constructing your poke later on. For the more adventurous, raw shrimp, clams, oysters, squid, octopus, and snails are also great, though they tend to have a slimy texture that not everybody is into. Scallops are the shellfish exception, with a firmer, meatier texture and a distinct sweetness.
If you can't get fresh raw fish or shellfish, or prefer not to eat it, poke also works well with cooked shellfish. Try it with thinly sliced boiled octopus, steamed (or canned!) mussels, or lightly poached shrimp or lobster. Avocado, cucumber, and soft tofu make excellent vegetarian or vegan poke.
Category 2: Aromatics/Texture Enhancers
The aromatics are the vegetables and spices that give character and contrasting textures to poke. I would include sweet onions, scallions, and sesame seeds in any spread, and most likely some kind of seaweed as well. Here's my full list of suggestions:
Alliums, such as:
- Diced sweet onions (such as Vidalia or Maui)
- Sliced scallions
- Fried shallots (either store-bought or homemade)
- Shallots or red onions
- Thinly sliced raw garlic or pickled garlic
Dried spices, nuts, and seeds, such as:
- Black or white sesame seeds
- Toasted and chopped macadamia nuts, tiger nuts, peanuts, almonds, or pistachios
- Chili flakes
- Homemade or store-bought furikake
Dried seaweed, such as:
- Limu (a Hawaiian seaweed that is the most traditional seasoning listed here, if you can find it—look for it dried in Japanese markets)
- Reconstituted and chopped wakame
- Reconstituted hijiki
- Shredded nori
Fresh vegetables or fruit, such as:
- Diced cucumber
- Diced avocado
- Diced small radishes
- Diced peppers
- Cooked corn
- Diced mango
- Diced green apples
- Peeled and slivered lychees
- Diced watermelon (try it with the crunchy white parts near the rind)
Pickled vegetables, like pickled ginger, kimchi, pickled jalapeños, or Japanese-style salt pickles.
Herbs, like mint, cilantro, basil, chives, or shiso.
Cured fish roe, like tobiko, masago, or cured salmon roe.
Chilies, like diced jalapeño, thinly sliced serrano, or thinly sliced Thai bird chilies.
Category 3: Sauces and Condiments
Basic poke is dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil, but you don't have to stop there! I almost always like a touch of something sweet, like honey or agave nectar, to give the dressing a little depth. Try providing a bottle of fish sauce or Maggi seasoning in addition to the soy sauce. Put out a few bottles of flavorful oils next to the sesame oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is excellent with rich or light fish. Garlic or shallot oil can add flavor without harsh bite, and a couple of drops of virgin nut oils can also add depth (go easy with them; most of them are quite powerful).
These days, it's not uncommon to see mayo or spicy mayo in poke. I prefer Japanese-style Kewpie mayo, which has a more savory flavor than American mayo (thank you, MSG).
To get the heat going, provide a variety of hot sauces. Sriracha, Tabasco, and Frank's are all easy to find and a good place to start. So is Chinese-style chili garlic sauce or a Thai-style sweet chili sauce. If you want to keep things simple, a little chili oil is a good way to add heat without many competing flavors.
How to Serve
Throwing the dinner party is easy. Before your party, have all of your ingredients chopped, refrigerated, and ready to go. When you're ready to serve, transfer everything into small serving bowls and provide each diner with a large bowl for mixing, along with some steamed rice on the side. (If you're worried about the raw fish sitting out for a long time at room temperature, you can keep it cool by putting it in a small metal mixing bowl, then nesting that bowl inside another that's filled with ice.) You can serve poke with forks and spoons or chopsticks—whatever you're more comfortable with—then let people have at it. Some peppery greens (like mizuna, arugula, or radish sprouts) with a simple vinaigrette make a great side dish, and a crisp, light white wine or an ice-cold beer is the perfect beverage to wash it down.
If you want to get really kitschy with the Polynesian fun, fake-flower leis, grass skirts, tiki torches, and plastic-coconut glassware are the ticket (just don't go sharing that nonsense on Instagram). All you'd need is a shave ice vendor in the den, a sea turtle in the backyard, and a few too many red Mustang convertibles on the road, and the transformation of your home into an island paradise would be complete.