I read a big article about Wisefish, the fast-casual poke concept in NYC, a couple weeks ago. I was riled up, and so were my Hawaiian friends. But even before that, there were already red flags: “Did you hear poke is trending?”
The headlines confirmed my fears: Poke, the traditional Hawaiian dish made of fish cut into small pieces, was spelled poké, with a diacritical on the e. That may seem like a minor modification, but as someone born and raised in Hawaii, its implications resonated. Poke is a word—poké and poki are not. It would be like if I didn’t know how to pronounce your last name and said, screw it, and changed it around. You don’t just change a word to sell it better. A word has meaning. Hawaiians have gone our entire lives explaining to visitors that it’s called poke (“poh-kay”), not “pohk.” That was part of the process—teaching and explaining what it is.
I was pissed by the whole affair. My initial response was, “the fuck!,” and then after the emotional reaction subsided, I said “the fuck!” Why am I so fired up? As a chef born and raised in Hawaii, I know there’s enough of us who work so hard to do the right thing, to represent our culture. We spend a lifetime trying to dispel stereotypes and undo miscommunicated history. It’s the same idea when people call me Hawaiian. I’m not a native Hawaiian—I’m a second-generation Japanese. Unlike elsewhere, where people identify themselves geographically (like New Yorkers or Californians), here in Hawaii we identify ourselves ethnically: Japanese. Filipino. Hawaiian. But that gets lost in translation, just like poke.
The poke trend puts Hawaiian cuisine in the spotlight, and that’s a positive thing. It deserves attention. But seeing it get press outside the islands is conflicting because of how personal food is for Hawaiians. There are famous old Hawaiian songs based on the abundance of what comes out of the ocean. We’re hardcore connected to our food, and if you’re not connected spiritually to our culture, there’s no amount of Instagram posts or Snapchats that is going to teach you who we are.
People are writing about the poke trend, but no one is paying attention to the history of it. No one is bothering to ask how these new places became inspired. Everyone co-opts dishes today, including poke, all across the board. But here’s my question: Do you know and respect where the dish came from? If not, then you have no business making it. I wouldn’t be drawing attention to these new poke chains if someone got to the bottom of their philosophy.
“I have witnessed the commodification of Hawaiian culture my entire life—throwing an accent on poke was just another notch in the belt.”
Instead of focusing on backstory, there’s this obsession over how it “comes in a bowl,” which is funny to me. We Asians have been eating out of bowls for generations. Polynesians, too. Take a coconut, cut it in half—that’s a bowl. It’s the most efficient way to eat, and when you get to the bottom, you can raise it to your mouth and shovel the rest in. In Hawaii, we don’t say we serve poke in a bowl. Hell, the average local family has more bowls than plates.
Another problem that’s being overlooked is the grave, environmental effects of turning a finite resource into a chain restaurant. As a small restaurant owner, I know what it takes to be truly invested in the ecosystem, and it sure as hell doesn’t take a franchise. McDonald’s isn’t in it for the long haul to raise beef responsibly. Back in 2014, we decided to conduct an experiment at my restaurant: We went a year without serving ahi. The decision came about after a friend of mine, an ecologist, wondered why we rarely served other kinds of fish. Growing up, we used to eat other things too. So I decided not to serve it for a year as a way to remember the value of it.
Ahi is an apex predator, a top-of-the-foodchain badass; it used to be regarded as special-occasion eating. In fact, a lot of poke used to be made using nearshore fish. If these franchises take on Chipotle proportions, they run a risk of disrupting the chain even more so. That sort of neglect doesn’t just exist in places like NYC and California. It’s here in Hawaii too. You see it at resorts—they’re obligated to serve 200 pounds of fish a day. If you go to the fish auctions, the fish are blatantly smaller than they were when I was a child.
“We’re hardcore connected to our food, and if you’re not connected—spiritually—to our culture, there’s no chapter in a book or any amount of Instagram posts or Snapchats that is going to teach you who we are.”
The problem isn’t that poke is being embraced by others, but rather how it’s being trivialized in media. I’d be remiss and naive if I thought that after my soapbox, all these places are going to come forward and say, “Sorry, Gooch! We’re going to close.” I just wish that more people in media would ask the right questions to the right people.
The next time I’m in NYC, I’ll probably try some poke. If it’s awesome, and the owner knows where the fish is coming from, and it’s a viable business, I hope he/she will let me know how they’re doing it, and I’ll have learned something. But I didn’t read just one article and suddenly fly off the handle. I have witnessed the commodification of Hawaiian culture my entire life—throwing an accent on poke was just another notch in the belt.
As told to Justin Bolois