How to Make a Fresh and Simple Hawaiian Poke Bowl
Oahu chef Mark Noguchi shares his family recipe for the raw fish dish.
Chef Mark Noguchi didn’t grow up eating poke at home, despite being born and raised in Hawaii, where the raw fish dish dates back to ancient times and eventually became ingrained in the Aloha State’s modern-day culinary culture.
“My father was the first Noguchi to come from Japan, so he loves sashimi, but he didn’t like poke,” says Noguchi, who held stints at renowned Oahu restaurants Town and Chef Mavro before launching The Pili Group, a catering, culinary education, and community advocacy organization. Fortunately, his mom’s brother, his Uncle Jumbo, was an avid fisherman who would catch fresh aku, a kind of skipjack tuna, he’d use to make his own poke.
Though poke—a dish of seasoned diced raw fish often tossed with Japanese-style soy sauce (known as shoyu), sesame oil, and varying other ingredients—is most commonly associated with ahi, a yellowfin tuna, aku is a more prized fish in Hawaii thanks to its intense flavor and high fat content.
“The reason you don’t see it with a lot of frequency is it begins to deteriorate the moment it dies. Aku has a shelf life of two days, so it doesn’t work for restaurants, but I got lucky and got to grow up with poke aku,” recounts Noguchi, who was raised in Honolulu. “My uncle and his friends would go out, come back, cut it up right there, and toss it with shoyu and whatever else was around.”
When he moved to Hilo on the island of Hawaii for college, Noguchi discovered he had family there he never knew about, since his grandmother and her sister were estranged. “Then I was on a mission to find my Hilo family,” he says. At the same time, he fell in love with the art of hula, which he credits as the reason he became a chef, saying it ignited his passion for Hawaiian culture and food. Meals with fellow hula dancers and his newfound family members often included poke.
“Through the parties that we had, all of the sudden I was introduced to different types of poke, all made super simply,” he says. “My auntie would make it with opelu. It’s a reef fish, a type of mackerel. It was the most amazing.”
Over the past 15 years, Noguchi has perfected his own poke recipe, tossing his fish—most frequently fresh ahi—with his own homemade smoked shoyu (though store-bought soy will do just fine for home cooks), sesame oil, fresh chili peppers, sweet onion, green onion, and seaweed (known as limu), plus sesame seeds for garnish.
“The number-one tip I learned is, right after you dice the fish, salt it. It firms up the flesh and draws out some of that blood. So, when I dice it and salt it, I’ll put it back in the fridge on a paper towel and I’ll leave it in there for about an hour,” says Noguchi, who adds that just a half teaspoon of salt per pound will get the job done and advises not getting too heavy handed with your sauce, either. “Anybody can sauce the hell out of fish, but the trick is to season it just enough to bring out the nuances.”
Noguchi’s other big piece of advice is to skip the ahi if you can’t get it fresh. And even if you can, if it’s being shipped in from thousands of miles away, you’re better off finding some seafood that’s native to your area.
“What if you can get really good scallops where you are? Or locally caught salmon? Now you can take a dish and a technique that came from Hawaii and use resources that are local and sustainable to where you are,” he says. “My mantra has always been, ‘cook what get.’”
Poke Recipe from Chef Mark Noguchi
Yield: 4-5 servings
- 1 pound high-grade fish or shellfish, diced in ¾ inch-to-1-inch cubes (If using lobster or shrimp, cook to 75 percent)
- 1 Teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 piece Hawaiian or Thai chili pepper, deseeded and minced
- ½ a small onion, thinly sliced with the grain
- ½ cup scallions, thinly sliced, reserving a tablespoon for garnish
- 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 Tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted and roughly ground
- ¼ teaspoon good salt to finish
- 1 cup fresh limu (seaweed), blanched and roughly chopped
1. In a mixing bowl, combine diced fish or shellfish and toss with 1 teaspoon of salt. This firms up your fish and starts the seasoning process.
2. Refrigerate for about one hour.
3. Remove bowl from refrigerator and add all ingredients except for 1tablespoon of sliced scallions, sesame seeds, and finishing salt.
4. Mix well.
5. Taste and adjust to your liking, but don’t mask the flavor of whatever you poke’d. All the ingredients are meant to complement each other.
6. Finish with scallions, sesame seed, and salt. Serve immediately.
7. If making a poke bowl to travel, keep hot rice and cold poke separate until you get to your destination.