It was love at first bite. The first time I tasted Hawaiian-style tuna poke, I fell madly in love with it. “Poke” — pronounced in two syllables — is to Hawaiians what sashimi is to Japanese, or saengsonhoe to Koreans. Like these cousins, it consists of very fresh raw fish in bite-sized slices or chunks. The difference is that poke is most often tossed with a pungent dressing or sauce. The classic ingredients are sesame oil, scallions, soy sauce, hot peppers and gochujang, the gorgeous Korean hot red pepper paste.
The poke that I first fell for was based on that heavenly fish, bluefin tuna. And the dressing contained ground macadamia nuts, which lifted the other flavors to glory.
I worked out a pretty close version that made an ideal party dish, and served it to unfailing applause for many years. Then one day I realized that the sky was falling — anyhow, that bluefin tuna was one of the most disastrously overfished of all species worldwide. Landing and killing one of these giants of the sea is not like reeling in a couple of mackerel or bluefish. Populations have crashed to such appalling levels that U.S. environmental activists have petitioned (so far unsuccessfully) to have the Atlantic bluefin declared an endangered species.
It tasted better to me the more guilty I felt about eating it, but finally I decided it was time to stop buying a pound or more of bluefin for poke-making purposes. Nothing else has that combination of succulent meatiness and clean flavor. Still, other choices can be quite good in their own right.
In many ways, tofu is the alternative that best suits the quasi-Korean mix of seasonings. It should be labeled “firm,” because anything softer will get mashed to bits when tossed with the macadamia dressing. Smoked tofu works too, though the interplay between the smoky flavor and the sauce may not be to the liking of all. Poached chicken breasts, just cooked through and cut into bite-sized cubes, are a whole different take, but a simple and nice one. The blandness of chicken plays agreeably against the rich sauce.
When I really crave the luscious texture of raw fish, I spring for wild-caught Pacific salmon. Pacific halibut is also supposed to work well in poke, but it never crosses my path in New Jersey.
Serves about 7 to 8 people as appetizer. This recipe is easy to double for a crowd.
- Cut the tofu, chicken or fish into bite-sized cubes (a little smaller than ½ inch). Refrigerate, tightly covered, in a mixing bowl until you are ready to work (any of them will keep overnight).
- Chop the scallion whites into thin rounds; cut a handful of the greens lengthwise into thin slivers. Set both aside, separately. Coarsely mince the chile.
- Toss the fish with the scallion whites and minced chile. Add the sesame oil and sesame seeds (if using); toss to coat well.
- Process the soy sauce, gochujang, and macadamias (add a handful at a time) in a food processor. If the mixture is very thick and heavy, lighten it with a few dashes of water. Toss the dressing with the cubes and chill for at least an hour, well covered, before serving.
- Just before serving, crumble a little toasted nori with your hands, combine with a little red salt in a mortar or spice grinder, and grind together to a powder. Scatter large pinches of the mixture over the top of the fish; finish with a scattering of the reserved scallion greens.
To serve this rather messy affair, I suggest providing people with small wooden skewers for spearing a chunk at a time.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.
Photo: Bluefin tuna. Credit: istockphoto.com / Gary Stokes