2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

If You Want to Put Ketchup on Raw Fish for Breakfast, You Do You

If You Want to Put Ketchup on Raw Fish for Breakfast, You Do You

Poke on the Big Island

We have run out of things to do on the Big Island. Or rather, we have run out of stomach real estate. Plate lunches, saimin, and every single kind of mochi available at Two Ladies’ Kitchen have done us in. “Please, no more big food,” I tell Chris. We drive around Hilo, looking for the smallest breakfast available. I spot a yellow banner announcing $1 Spam Musubis outside Poke to Your Taste, where a too-small banner reading “Poke to Your Taste” insufficiently covers another sign that probably also reads “Poke to Your Taste” (there was a “po” sticking out) but I’m just guessing here.

I get a little foil box with rice, shrimp, and undressed cubes of fresh ahi and bring it over to a condiment table, where there are a couple different kinds of chopped onions, bottles of shoyu, mayonnaise, and ketchup (no idea). There are plastic spoons sticking out of little containers of furikake and toasted sesame seeds. I find that it’s sort of a weird and wonderful thing to assemble my own breakfast poke. I tell others to trust me when it comes to making poke. Ahi costs us too much in Philadelphia, but I’ll make ahi poke for you, if you insist. I’ll also make ahi poke as a special order for customers of Poi Dog Philly, the sort-of Hawaiian food truck I co-own, but they’ll have to purchase it by the quart and we don’t make any money on it. This is poke as public service.

Trust me, I know how much alaea salt to put in your poke. I know how many macadamia nuts to crush to make a substitute for inamona, the kukui nut condiment that flavors many a poke, and how much diced onion is too much diced onion. Here, I can prove to myself that I am indeed trustworthy.

The poke trend that seems to be sweeping American coastal cities makes me more than a bit uncomfortable, especially when businesses insist on adding a diacritic acute to the “e” in poke. Language can be marvelous in its fluidity, but we lose things if we aren’t mindful. I fear for poke going the way of bruschetta and tuna going the way of silphium. May a species not die in our bellies, à la the emperor Nero, who supposedly consumed the very last stalk of silphium, and may we not lose sense of the origins of a dish. Yet I’m happy to see people making fishless poke. Poke doesn’t have to be made with fish; the dish is more about the act of cutting.

Poke to Your Taste and new mainland poke chains have only customization in common. Poke to Your Taste could not feel more humble and like my grandma’s kitchen with its jalousie windows (there’s even the same rice cooker as she had, the big one for family gatherings that was decorated with pink flowers). Adding the amount of salt that I like, a couple teaspoons of diced sweet onion, a sprinkle of green onion, a squirt of sriracha mayo and some furikake on my rice, I put together a breakfast that tastes like home to me.

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