I am really pleased that Mainland folks with very little if any connection to Hawaii have embraced the poke bowl. Like the Spirit of Aloha, surfing, and hula, all Hawaii residents should be proud to add the savory raw fish dish to the list of Hawaiian exports. I for one can take personal pride in the feat, because, you see: I. Invented. The poke bowl.
The first time I encountered poke was at my first ever luau, which I attended in the 1970s. I forget the occasion, but it was a classic Hawaiian luau in a large field, where beneath large tarpaulin tents, hundreds of ohana and guests gathered. There was hula and a steel guitar band. As a nine year old at the time, this is the extent of detail I recall, save one other. I remember the poke. My 11 year old friend gave me a paper cup and grinned, "here, try this." I put the purple, slimy morsel in my mouth and immediately gagged. It was cold, clammy, and salty. In retrospect, I'm surprised I didn't bother to ask or hesitate before popping it past my lips. I thought I was being fed boogers. It was my first ever experience with raw fish. Luckily, in the ensuing years I quickly took to sashimi and sushi and ceviche and poisson cru and all things seafood, and my first ever encounter with the Hawaiian version of raw fish was but a footnote.
Fast forward to the Nineties, after seven years of college and law school, and I returned to Hawaii, fully immersing myself in the outrigger paddling lifestyle. Such a life involved canoe paddling on the beautiful blue-green water surrounding our islands almost every day from February to October, punctuated by almost weekly races. My canoe club was a notorious party club. We often found ourselves after these races reveling well into the night. We enjoyed sharing coolers of beer, meats grilled on hibachis set up on the grass or sand, and plastic containers of poke, which we purchased from any number of supermarkets selling it as an item as unremarkable as apples or hot dogs. The variety was endless, consisting of ahi tuna, octopus, marlin, even raw white crab. Drizzle these with sesame oil, green onions, shoyu (soy sauce), and chili pepper flakes, and you have a basic poke. But you might also find minced garlic, chopped kukui or macadamia nut, shredded ginger, even a Sriracha-mayonaise dressing to make it spicy. All of this would be passed around amongst my paddling teammates and shared with endless beer after beer. Mostly, we would pick the hunks of fish out of the containers with our fingers, or maybe chopsticks if we refused to be uncouth. This was my Nineties.
Then one Sunday, I thought to myself, "this poke would be good with some hot rice." I was thinking of the Japanese chirashi dishes that many sushi restaurants offered. Rather than serving sashimi nigiri style, on bullets of rolled rice one at a time, chirashi was a large shallow bowl of warm sushi rice, upon which a layer of sashimi - ahi, hamachi, salmon, chutoro and otoro - was decoratively arranged for one to heartily dig into with chopsticks. This is what I wanted for my poke, and no one had ever seen it served that way before.
Before my Hawaiian chirashi idea, poke was more an appetizer, to be served as I had experienced it 2 decades before; in a paper cup served on the side of a luau plate, little better than an afterthought to the entree of kalua pig, shoyu chicken, and rice.
By the end of that particular canoe season, my teammates were bringing portable rice cookers to the races, to enjoy with the poke that would inevitably be passed around. I even introduced my new wife to it by instituting a Monday Night Football picnic, wherein I came home with poke from the store and cooked up a pot of rice, which we would enjoy sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the football game, eating from the Japanese bowls we got in our wedding.
Still, this particular style of serving poke was not seen in local eateries, much less in fancy Pacific Rim Fusion cuisine places like Roy's or Sam Choy's until a few years after our wedding. The first "poke bowl" I noticed on a menu was at a small "plate lunch" restaurant. Historians are convinced (OK, I, I am convinced) that that poke bowl can be traced backwards from paddler to paddler all the way back to my canoe club's tarp tent.
In the ensuing years, I noticed poke bowls at Zippy's, the humble and ubiquitous Hawaiian diner franchise, and at Sam Choy's Breakfast Lunch & Crab on the high end. To me, it reached local saturation when groceries offered a poke bowl option at their fresh fish counter. I recognized it as a popular explosion when a friend of a friend, both of whom lived in the Mid-West, sheepishly asked me about poke bowls on Facebook, when she learned I was from Honolulu.