Poke, a raw fish salad served as an appetizer in Hawaiian cuisine, has become extremely popular in recent years. Restaurants across the mainland United States have added their own creative spins on the traditional Hawaiian dish. One such innovation has been the use of raw salmon in poke bowls, rather than the traditional tuna. This has led some to question whether salmon poke can be considered authentic. Here we explore the history, traditions, and cultural significance of poke in order to determine if salmon poke is authentic.
What is authenticity?
When evaluating whether a food is authentic, there are a few key factors to consider:
- Origins – Where did the dish originally come from? What culture created it?
- Ingredients – What ingredients were traditionally used? How have these changed over time?
- Preparation – What are the customary methods for making the dish?
- Context – How and when is the dish traditionally served and eaten?
Authenticity implies adhering to traditional or original forms of a food. But it also allows for adaptation over time, as cooking is a dynamic process. The key is balance between preserving traditions and embracing innovation. When major aspects of a dish are fundamentally altered, its claim to authenticity becomes questionable.
History of poke in Hawaii
Poke originated with native Hawaiians as a way to eat freshly caught reef fish and octopus. The word “poke” comes from the Hawaiian verb meaning “to slice” or “cut crosswise into pieces.”
Traditionally, fisherman would clean and gut the fish, then cut it into chunks and combine it with sea salt, seaweed, and other seasonings. Poke was considered a main course or snack, rather than an appetizer. Hawaiians ate it with their hands along with poi, rice, or other sides.
Here are some key facts about the history of poke in Hawaii:
- Originated with native Hawaiians in pre-contact times (before 1778)
- Traditionally made from reef fish likeahi (yellowfin tuna) and aku (skipjack tuna)
- Octopus (he‘e), shrimp (‘ōpelu) and crab (papa‘i) also used as protein sources
- Seasoned with sea salt, seaweed (limu), candlenut (kukui), chili pepper (‘ōlelo)
- Eaten as a main course, snack or side dish
As a foundational food source for Hawaiians, poke was culturally important long before outside influences arrived on the islands. The basic style and ingredients of traditional poke have remained largely consistent over time.
Poke in modern Hawaii
While remaining faithful to tradition in many regards, poke culture and recipes have naturally evolved in Hawaii over the past 200 years. Some key developments include:
- Transition from reef fish to ahi tuna as the predominant protein, due to changing availability
- Addition of onion, tomato, scallion, soy sauce, sesame oil and other condiments
- Popularization as a appetizer or lunch dish after World War II
- Emergence of the supermarket poke counter selling packaged, grab-and-go poke
- Creative innovations like spicy ahi poke, volcano poke bowls with hot sauce, and poke burgers
Here is a comparison of traditional and modern poke in Hawaii:
|Reef fish like ahi, aku
|Ahi tuna predominantly
|Octopus, crab, shrimp
|Same types but less common
|Cubes and slices
|Sea salt, seaweed, Hawaiian chili pepper
|Soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions
|Finger food with poi, rice
|Appetizer, lunch bowl
|Spicy mayo, tropical fruit, poke burgers
This shows how poke has adapted over time in Hawaii while remaining true to its cultural roots. The basic essence and customs around poke have been passed down while allowing for modern creativity.
Poke explodes in popularity on the mainland
Though poke restaurants started emerging on the mainland US in the early 2000s, the dish truly blew up in popularity across the country over the past decade. Reasons for this growth include:
- Increased appreciation for Hawaiian culture and flavors
- Focus on raw and healthy cuisine trends
- Customization potential with build-your-own poke bowls
- Sustainable and eco-friendly seafood movement
According to Google Trends data, searches for “poke bowl” quadrupled from 2013 to 2018 in the US. Poke chains and fast casual restaurants popped up offering highly customizable bowl options. The mainland style often diverges from tradition with non-traditional toppings like mangoes, escarole, quinoa, and poke nachos.
Salmon poke rises in mainland popularity
One of the most common variations from traditional Hawaiian poke on the mainland is the use of raw salmon. Mainland poke eateries offer salmon poke alongside the traditional tuna or in dedicated salmon bowls. Reasons for its popularity include:
- Wider availability and lower cost of fresh salmon compared to tuna
- Appeal to non-seafood eaters due to milder flavor
- Pink color provides appealing visual contrast
- Association with mainstream sushi culture
According to market research firm Technomic, salmon now appears in poke bowls twice as often as tuna at restaurants in the U.S. The rise of salmon poke mirrors the growing preference for salmon over tuna in American sushi culture over the past three decades.
Is salmon poke authentic?
Now we return to our original question – can salmon poke be considered authentically Hawaiian? There are reasonable arguments on both sides:
Arguments for authenticity
- Salmon is harvested from the Pacific ocean waters surrounding Hawaii
- Hawaiians developed a taste for salmon after Western contact and introduced it into local cuisine
- Modern poke embraces innovation while respecting tradition
- Salmon complements traditional poke flavors well when properly balanced
According to Hawaiian chef Sam Choy, salmon has become “a very Hawaiian fish” accepted in modern poke. Hawaiian purveyors like Kiawe Roots and Aloha Seafood supply salmon poke to restaurants and grocery stores across the islands.
Arguments against authenticity
- Salmon was not originally used in poke in pre-contact Hawaii
- Salmon poke is rare in Hawaiian restaurants and markets compared to ahi
- Mainland poke restaurants primarily drove the salmon trend
- Overuse of salmon dilutes cultural identity of poke
Critics argue that swapping salmon for tuna fundamentally alters poke’s Hawaiian essence. Salmon has not been organically incorporated into Hawaiian cuisine to the extent necessary to be considered traditional.
Evidence from Hawaiian chefs and experts
To help resolve this debate, it is insightful to look at perspectives from authoritative Hawaiian chefs and cultural experts:
“Salmon is delicious, but not traditional. Poke is rooted in our connection to the reef and the fish that live there.” – Sheldon Simeon, Tin Roof chef
“Salmon and avocado are foreign influences. Poke is simple – it’s about the ahi.” – Sam Kamanao Choy, Kona chef
“Salmon poke is not authentic. But times have changed, so I understand why people make it.” – Grant Sato, Poké to the Max founder
Based on these perspectives, salmon poke appears difficult to categorize as authentically Hawaiian, but is acknowledged as a creative offshoot. Use of salmon is widespread, but not rooted in cultural tradition.
After analyzing the origins, history, and current perspectives on salmon poke, it seems clear that while commonly enjoyed, it cannot be considered truly authentic Hawaiian cuisine.
Salmon poke bowls are a modern mainland fusion adaptation rather than a traditional Hawaiian dish. However, their popularity speaks to the appeal of Pacific flavors. When respectfully and knowledgeably prepared, salmon poke can offer a refreshing new way for Americans to enjoy poke without compromising its cultural integrity.
Authenticity is complex. Tradition evolves over time. As chef Sam Choy said, salmon has undoubtedly become “Hawaiianized” in modern times. Though not traditional, responsible salmon poke dishes can celebrate both Hawaiian culinary heritage and ongoing innovation in the islands.
The keys are educating consumers on poke’s deep Hawaiian roots, not marketing inauthentic dishes as traditional ones, and finding the right balance between preserving culinary traditions and advancing them. Salmon poke has its place, but proper context is important.
When ranking poke dishes on the authenticity scale, the evidence suggests:
- Traditional ahi or aku tuna poke is most authentic
- Modern Hawaiian salmon poke is moderately authentic
- Mainland poke with non-Hawaiian flavors and ingredients is least authentic
The origins, essence and spirit of poke will always remain in Hawaii. But the mainland excitement speaks to just how irresistible this Hawaiian favorite has become to the entire United States and beyond.