May 22, 2023

Poke: The savory taste of umami

In trying to describe the delightful taste of poke to a friend, words that came to mind were “onolicious” and “broke da mouth.”

Some further research hit upon a Japanese word, “umami,” pronounced “oo-ma-mee.”

The folks at Kikkoman Soy Sauce explain it this way: “Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste sensations. It’s most commonly defined as ‘savory,’ but the characteristics of umami can also be described as ‘meaty,’ ‘complex’ or just ‘delicious.’ Sometimes umami is wrongly thought to mean a harmonious combination of flavors in a dish, but in fact umami is completely separate to the four other taste sensations.”

Umami has been associated with certain foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce and aged cheeses.

Technically speaking, the taste of umami is caused by the presence of glutamate, an amino acid found naturally in many foods. It’s a satisfying and rich taste that adds depth and complexity to food.

While that’s a mouthful, it’s really just the beginning of getting to the bottom of the rising popularity of poke, the local favorite appetizer served at luau, birthday celebrations and Super Bowl parties.

When done right, with cubed chunks of fresh sashimi-grade tuna, ahi poke (pronounced poh-kay, not poh-kee) is kiss-from-da-ocean fresh, giving the dish a clean, bright taste. The raw tuna is seasoned with ingredients such as soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions and chili peppers.

There’s often a line of customers awaiting their turn to place an order for poke at island seafood counters. Friendly folks behind the counter scoop up poke varieties in plastic containers. Poke choices include ahi shoyu, ahi shoyu limu, ahi oyster sauce, ahi Hawaiian salt, fresh ahi Hawaiian style and ahi California roll. Some poke is made with octopus, like tako poke and kim-chee tako poke, for a hot and spicy Korean kick.

Poke can be found at food trucks and even at some high-end restaurants. Even some foodies who’ve been skeptical about eating raw fish have turned into poke converts.

A word or two of caution: Food safety expert John Nakashima says consumers should exercise some common sense and buy poke or raw seafood from a reputable source, such as a retail store, wholesaler, a well-known fisherman or someone with a commercial license to sell fish.

Refrigeration is very important, he said, because some types of fish are capable of producing toxins if not properly refrigerated.

“Big question is: Do you know the source?” says Nakashima, who worked a dozen years as a food safety education specialist with the Hawaii Department of Health. “If you are buying fish from the side of the road, do you know how the fish was handled prior to sale? If cut up pieces, where did they do it? Was it kept refrigerated or chilled the entire time? If fish is from a fresh water source, I would not recommend eating it raw, due to the potential for illness from parasites.”

According to Hawaii Department of Health rules, a fish that is to be consumed without cooking needs to be treated for parasite destruction before eating. There are exceptions for farm-raised fish that have not had exposure to parasites or for many of the tuna fish that don’t have parasites harmful to humans. Technically, all other fish should be frozen or cooked prior to eating.

Poke has been part of cuisine in the islands for centuries. In Hawaiian, “poke” means “to slice or cut into chunks.” For a quick snack, hungry fishermen would season raw fish with sea salt and seaweed.

In recent years, poke has gained culinary popularity around the world. In 2015, Pokéworks opened its first location in New York City. Now, the chain has expanded to 22 states, including California, and the District of Columbia. There are no locations in Hawaii. 

Fueling the Mainland poke trend has been customers’ quest for a healthy and convenient meal. Poke is versatile and easy to prepare, and chefs appreciate that there are endless ways to serve it up.

Poke is high in protein, low in fat and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, among other important nutrients. Poke is often served with vegetables and other nutrient-dense ingredients such as seaweed, avocado and edamame.

While poke is often made with sashimi-grade ahi, it’s also prepared with octopus. Some other popular seafood options for poke include salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, crab and scallops.

About the author: Brian Perry grew up in Honolulu, graduating from Roosevelt High School and the University of Hawaii. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, Brian worked for five years at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. There, he met and married Claudine San Nicolas. In 1990, the couple moved to Maui to work as journalists at The Maui News. In December 2018, Brian left the newspaper to work four years as Director of Communications for Mayor Michael Victorino. Now, Brian and Claudine have established a communications and public relations business, Red Rice Maui LLC.

The Foodland seafood counter in Wailuku offers consumers a wide variety of poke options. Photo by Brian Perry


Poke Recipe

Here’s a sample recipe for a classic Hawaiian-style ahi poke:


1 pound sashimi-grade ahi tuna, cut into bite-sized cubes

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tbsp. sesame oil

1 tbsp. rice vinegar

1 tbsp. honey or brown sugar

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

1 garlic clove, minced

2 green onions, thinly sliced

1 tbsp. sesame seeds

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 avocado, diced

1/4 cup diced cucumber

1/4 cup diced mango

Cooked rice or salad greens, for serving.


In a large bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, honey or brown sugar, ginger, and garlic.

Add the cubed tuna to the bowl and gently toss to coat with the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

When ready to serve, add the sliced green onions, sesame seeds, and cilantro to the bowl and toss to combine.

To serve, place a scoop of cooked rice or salad greens in a bowl or on a plate. Top with the marinated tuna mixture, diced avocado, cucumber, and mango. Garnish with additional cilantro and sesame seeds, if desired.

This recipe serves four and can be easily adjusted to suit individual preferences for seasoning and toppings. Enjoy!


Other articles on poke spots on Maui:

5 of the Best Places to Get Ahi Poke on Maui (by The Old Wailuku Inn)

Where to Find the Best Poke on Maui? (by Hawaii Travel With Kids) 

Where to Find the Best Poke on Maui (by Local Getaways Hawaii)

13 Spots for the Best Poke in Maui (by Wanderly)