Discovering the pleasures of poke, raw fish in a rice bowl hits the Chinese dining scene

Poke bowls from Alter Ego at Esplanade Mall. PHOTO: ZAOBAO
Poke bowls from Alter Ego at Esplanade Mall. PHOTO: ZAOBAO

CHINA (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - "For Hawaii locals, poke tastes like home," writes author Martha Cheng in her new book about the past year's hottest food trend. "For me, it recalls my earliest visits, when my dad and I would head straight from the beach to a Waikiki corner store and buy raw ahi (big-eye or yellowfin tuna) with our saltwater-soaked dollar bills. I grew up in San Francisco, but I had never tasted fish as fresh as this."

Cheng's romance with poke is beautifully captured in The Poke Cookbook: The Freshest Way To Eat Fish, and in the luscious photographs by Aubrie Pick. The fascination with poke (pronounced POH-kay) has become a global phenomenon, thanks to hip eateries focused on fresh, healthy fare and beautiful dishes that make colourful ingredients leap from the plate to the eye.

In simplest terms, poke is a raw fish salad-or, as the Huang sisters who run Little Catch in Shanghai like to say: "deconstructed sushi in a bowl".

Think of the freshest fish possible, Cheng writes, cleanly sliced and "glistening in seasonings that range from sweet to salty, nutty to crunchy".

"It is like salad, or fish-and-rice dishes for that matter," says Beijing chef Sandeep Bhagwat, who has teamed with his boss, executive chef Jackson Wu, to create a summery poke menu at the Opus Lounge of the Four Seasons Beijing. "It's an opportunity to play with a lot of flavors and textures. Each dish is served with a starch portion - usually rice, but we're playing with quinoa and couscous, too."

The results of such kitchen "play" include octopus with fruit and couscous, tuna belly Japanese-style with avocado on rice, and the mouth-watering favourite at our table: tuna on quinoa with harissa, a red-pepper sauce with North African origins. A vegan option includes both firm threads and soft cubes of tofu with sweet potato and rice.

The summer menu theme was inspired by a holiday Wu took in Hawaii.

"We're not trying to duplicate traditional poke exactly," says Mr Bhagwat. "We're adding some ceviche to the summer menu as well.

While poke is not new, the foodie enthusiasm for it seems to have come out of nowhere.

Like cookbook author Cheng, Singaporean sisters Huang Wenyi, 32, and Huang Jiayi, 30, developed a love for poke during family vacations to Hawaii. When they opened Little Catch in 2015 as an accessible imported-seafood retailer, they found that even lots of Westerners in Shanghai had no idea what poke was.

Their "deconstructed sushi in a bowl" was an established hit in 2016, around the same time that pop-up operators like Beijing's The Hatchery were creating poke fans in the capital. Coincidentally, Hawaiian celebrity chef Alan Wong opened his Shanghai restaurant last year, where the raw bar is awash in tempting poke options.

Besides enjoying the flavors of poke on Hawaiian beaches in their youth, the Huang sisters embrace the dish because it is easy to prepare for people like themselves who do not come from a chef's background.

"All you need to make poke is a really sharp knife to cut up your fish and vegetables," writes Cheng in The Poke Cookbook.

"When I see poke trending now in the continental US," she says, "I think, 'What took so long?' Hawaiians have long known the pleasures of seasoned raw seafood. Being surrounded by ocean probably has something to do with it.

"Way back, long before Captain Cook landed in the islands in the 18th century, native Hawaiians would prepare i'a maka (raw fish), chopping up reef fish (the striped and brightly coloured fish you see when snorkelling in Hawaii), bones and all. They would season it with sea salt dried in the sun, limu (seaweed), and 'inamona (roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut).

"But it wasn't until the 1970s that the dish really gained popularity and the word poke, which simply means to slice, or to cut crosswise into pieces, came to be associated with the preparation we know now."

While poke is best-known today as cubed raw ahi tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, raw onions and red chillies, she says seafood counters in Hawaii offer lots of variety.

"Poke doesn't even have to be raw," she adds. "Legendary poke chef Sam Choy makes a fried poke, transforming yesterday's poke into today's fought-over leftovers."

If you go

China-wide: Element Fresh

Beijing: Home Grounds, Village Cafe (in Opposite House), Opus Lounge summer menu (in Four Seasons Beijing)

Guangzhou: Morton's Grille

Hong Kong: Aloha, The Poke Co, Pokeworld, Pololi

Shanghai: Little Catch (two stores) and Alan Wong's (in the Portman Ritz-Carlton)