Making poke at home is easy and delicious

July 13, 2021
Making poke at home is easy and delicious
Making poke at home is easy and delicious. Photo courtesy of Bill St. John.

Raw fish doesn’t faze us anymore. We dine out on sushi, lots of it. We’ve really gotten to like ceviche, and even build it at home.

But we’ve yet to fall for poke (POH-kay), Hawaii’s raw fish salad, certainly easier than sushi to cobble together, and less complex than ceviche.

These are perfect days to do-it-yourself poke. It’s a cooling dish; it’s ur-healthy; and though we Coloradans certainly live inland, the sea fish don’t know that and they’re hopping non-stops to DIA and getting here as fresh as ever.

The simplest poke is basically large cubes of raw fish, sesame seed oil, soy sauce, sliced scallion and sesame seeds. It’s a yin and yang of crunch and slither, salt and umami.

Served over rice and greens (even such everyday greens as sliced iceberg lettuce), poke is a simple yet elegant whole meal.

A variation on cooking plain poke is to add some cubed cucumber and peach, perfect at this time of year.
A variation on making plain poke is to add some cubed cucumber and peach, perfect at this time of year. Photo courtesy of Bill St. John.

I’m pretty sure that we don’t do a lot of poke because we’re infrequent buyers of sushi-grade seafood, but you can make poke with large cooked shrimp, any raw fish such as tuna, salmon, scallop, seabass or halibut (just be sure to buy super-fresh or frozen), firmer tofu or even cooked foods such as large portobello mushroom caps or skinned golden beets, both cut into large chunks.

Non-Asians among us also are unaccustomed to cooking poke’s customary sushi rice or sticky rice, so we reflexively might say “No way, poke.” But regular rice, white or brown, of any length or girth, is just fine too, as are other grains such as quinoa, amaranth or bulghur. Soba or rice noodles, cooked and cooled, work well also.

Get more tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

The point is, poke is pretty much just something protein-ish, raw or cooked, garnished or dressed in delish and served over a grain. Easy peasy. Sure, raw fish poke is the apex and easy to assemble, but the spins are as facile as well. So just DIY.

As for seasonings, go for a balance of salt, fat and umami. Soy sauce, rice vinegar and the oil of sesame seed are common, but you also can use citrus juices and mayonnaise (if this latter, try to find an Asian version of the tangy Kewpie brand).

The Hawaiian word “poke” means “to slice” and that’s the treatment for the fish or other chunked food, and often the accompanying greens or vegetables such as seaweed strips, cilantro, shredded cabbage, avocado (cubes or strips) or edamame.

Know that the balancing counterpoint to any “slice” you make is a bunch of “crunch” that you add, so let loose with add-ins such as matchstick carrots, mandarin orange segments, coins of cucumber, pickled ginger, dried seaweed strips, radish coins or slivers, and toasted wonton wrappers or pastel-colored shrimp or prawn crackers. Any wasabi? To the side.

Tuna Poke

Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients for tuna poke

3/4 cup uncooked sushi or glutinous rice

3/4 pound #1- or #2-grade ahi tuna, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice or 1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon roasted sesame seed oil

1/4 teaspoon dried pepper flakes (plain red or Urfa or Aleppo)

1/3 large or 1/2 medium jalapeño pepper, sliced see-through-thin

2 large scallions, sliced into thin rings, white and light green parts only

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves

Lettuce greens of any sort, chopped or sliced

1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds (roasted, white or black, or a mix)

Directions for tuna poke

Cook the rice and, when finished, set it aside, covered with a towel, refrigerated if desired. Put the tuna chunks in a bowl and add the soy sauce or tamari, lime juice or vinegar, sesame seed oil, and pepper flakes. Toss the fish in the dressing and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes or up to an hour, again refrigerated if desired.

To a second bowl, add the jalapeño rings, the sliced scallions, and the cilantro leaves and toss them together well. When ready to serve, assemble 2 poke bowls or plates by laying down a bed of the lettuce greens in each, then putting 1/2 the cooked rice atop each.

Take the bowl of marinated fish and add the greens from the second bowl, again tossing well so that small bits of scallion, jalapeño and cilantro stick throughout. Arrange 1/2 measure of the fish onto each serving, sprinkling decoratively with the sesame seeds.

Variations of poke:

– For a “sweet” seasonal peach and cucumber poke, omit the dried peppers, jalapeño and cilantro and substitute 1 Colorado peach, skinned, pitted and diced, and 1/2 cup cucumber, peeled and diced.

– To make a “Nicoise poke,” substitute an orange ponzu for the dressing (orange juice and a bit of grated orange zest for the lime juice, plus a splash of rice vinegar), and none of the other ingredients except the scallion. To the bowl, add green bean segments tossed thinly in olive oil, very good oil-cured black olives, hard-cooked eggs, a couple wee cooked waxy potatoes, some small jewel tomatoes, and use a bed of romaine lettuce.

– For a “lunchroom tuna salad” poke, make half the amount of dressing and add 1 heaping tablespoon Kewpie mayonnaise and 1 heaping teaspoon sweet pickle relish, both mixed in. Exchange chopped flat-leaf parsley for the cilantro, and omit the sesame seeds in favor of large, toasted breadcrumbs or croutons.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.