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Poke is a quintessential component of Hawaiian cuisine, known for its fresh and simple ingredients like cubed raw fish mixed with seaweed and different seasonings. With Hawaiian poke shops proliferating across the mainland, many who never grew up around the islands are left wondering—what exactly is poke?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Poke is a Hawaiian raw seafood salad typically made from chunks of raw, fresh ahi tuna or octopus mixed with soy sauce, sesame oil, seaweed, and spices served over rice.

In this comprehensive 3000+ word guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the origins, varieties, flavors, nutrition facts, and more about poke to help you understand exactly why it has become so wildly popular.

A Brief History of Poke in Hawaiian Culture

Poke Originated as a Native Hawaiian Fishing Method

Poke (pronounced poh-kay) has its roots in the traditional fishing practices of Native Hawaiians. When out fishing, Hawaiians would slice up smaller catches of fish and season them with sea salt, seaweed, and limu (edible algae). This allowed them to eat the freshest catch right on their canoes.

The Hawaiian word “poke” comes from the terms “poki” or “pocket” referring to the act of slicing fish into small pieces that could easily fit into pockets and be eaten by hand. It was a simple and efficient way to enjoy the day’s catch while still out at sea.

Poke Evolved into a Common Raw Fish Dish

Over the centuries, poke evolved into a popular raw fish dish across the Hawaiian islands. The sliced raw fish became known as poke and it was commonly served as an appetizer or side dish along with the main course.

In modern Hawaiian culture, poke remains a staple food that is often eaten on a daily basis. Locals will typically enjoy ahi or salmon poke multiple times a week. The dish is sold pre-made at grocery stores, fish markets, and of course, poke restaurants.

Common poke additions expanded from the original Hawaiian style to include various ingredients like green onions, limu seaweed, roasted kukui nuts, chili pepper, sea asparagus, and more. Soy sauce, sesame oil, and sea salt also became standard poke seasonings.

Mainland Poke Shops Bring the Dish to Worldwide Popularity

While poke was a regular part of local Hawaiian cuisine for years, the opening of mainland poke restaurants is what really introduced the dish to the masses. In recent years, poke has exploded in popularity with poke shops popping up across main cities in America.

By serving fresh, Hawaiian-style poke bowls, these mainland establishments allowed people all across the country to try authentic poke. Diners could customize their own poke bowl with favorite ingredients or sauces.

The poke trend then went global as restaurants opened internationally, including over 900 poke shops in Europe alone. A dish that started centuries ago as a Hawaiian fishing method is now a worldwide phenomenon!

Types and Varieties of Poke

Ahi Tuna Poke

Ahi tuna poke is undoubtedly the most popular variety of poke found across Hawaii (and now, the rest of the world). This raw, ruby-red tuna is prized for its soft and buttery texture. The lean cut of tuna soaks up the flavors of soy sauce, sesame oil, seaweed, and spicy mayo to create a mouthwatering bite.

According to Hawaii Magazine, nearly 75% of poke servings in Hawaii contain ahi tuna.

Tako (Octopus) Poke

For the more adventurous poke eater, tako (octopus) poke provides a deliciously chewy, slightly sweet counterpart to traditional tuna poke. The octopus meat is typically sliced thin or diced small and layered over rice.

Many people find that a dash of chili pepper brings out the natural sweetness of the octopus. Fun fact: the Northwestern Hawaiian islands host up to four species of native octopus, making this sea creature plentiful in Hawaiian cuisine according to Hawaii-Forest.

Salmon Poke

Salmon poke delivers an elegant twist to the usual tuna, marry salmon’s lush and fatty texture with tropical flavors. The Department of Land and Natural Resources reports steady runs of wild Alaskan salmon available in Hawaii, while aquaculture operations around the islands contribute farmed salmon.

For the poke bowl, thick slices of ruby-orange salmon pair beautifully with spicy mayo, green onions, and toasted sesame seeds.

Seafood Mix Poke Bowls

Hawaii’s bounty of fresh seafood makes for endless poke combinations in the islands’ many seafood mix varieties. Alongside tuna or salmon, you may find shrimp, crab sticks, shelled scallops, sweet mild conch, sea urchin roe, or salty dried fish in these medleys of textures and colors.

The rotating seafood specials keep the flavors interesting for locals and tourists alike. Poke specialty shops pride themselves on their daily offerings caught fresh from Honolulu’s bustling fish auction at Pier 38.

Vegetarian Poke Bowls

Vegans and vegetarians need not miss out on the poke craze either! Tofu makes a protein-packed pinch hitter for the usual cubes of raw fish. Marinated in a flavorful sauce, extra-firm tofu soaks up the flavors while maintaining a satisfying bite.

Local favorite Simple Joy Vegetarian Cuisine in Honolulu builds vegetarian poke bowls layered with sweet potato, cucumber, mango and fried wonton crisps. Quinoa or forbidden black rice stands in for white sushi rice to keep it plant-based.

Distinct Flavors and Ingredients in Poke

Soy Sauce

The salty umami taste of soy sauce is one of the most iconic flavors in poke. Traditional Hawaiian poke uses shoyu, a type of soy sauce made from fermented soybeans. According to a 2022 Serious Eats article, early Hawaiian poke was simply fresh raw fish seasoned with sea salt, seaweed, and inamona (a Hawaiian condiment made from roasted kukui nuts).

Soy sauce wasn’t added to poke until the 1800s when Chinese immigrants brought shoyu with them to Hawaii.

Sesame Oil and Seeds

Nutty sesame oil and crunchy sesame seeds complement the soft textures of raw fish and vegetables in poke. According to MyRecipes, sesame seeds or oil are included in about 75% of poke orders. Toasted or untoasted, sesame seeds provide flavor, crunch, and visual appeal as a common poke topping along with green onions.

Seaweed and Green Onions

Crisp bits of seaweed and slivers of green onion provide briny, pungent counterpoints to the buttery fish in poke. Seaweed offers a concentrated dose of ocean flavor, while green onions lend fresh bite and bright color.

Popular varieties used in poke include wakame, limu, or ogo seaweed and long green onions or scallions. The contrasting flavors and textures beautifully complement the star ingredient: ultra-fresh raw seafood.


Spices like chili pepper, ginger, garlic, or shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice) can provide aromatic heat to balance the rich fattiness of fresh raw tuna or salmon. According to Chattersource, the type and amount of spice varies greatly between poke shops and geographic regions.

The Hawaiian island of Maui is particularly known for its spicy poke accented with ingredients like fried kukui nuts, fried onion, and Hawaiian salt.

Sweet Onions and Tropical Fruits

For a touch of balancing sweetness, many poke bowls also incorporate ingredients like sweet onion, mango, pineapple, or lychee. The juicy tropical fruits complement the oily fattiness of fresh fish. Cubed raw onion offers pungent allium bite to balance the rich smoothness of raw seafood.

Overall, well-balanced poke beautifully blends salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and umami flavors in every bite.

Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits of Poke Bowls

High in Protein

Poke is an excellent source of lean protein from fish like ahi tuna, salmon, and yellowtail. A typical poke serving contains about 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein, providing 40-50% of the recommended daily protein intake in one bowl.

Protein is essential for building and repairing muscles, supporting weight loss, keeping you energized, and maintaining overall health.

Rich Source of Omega-3s

Many varieties of fish used in poke are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including anti-inflammatory EPA and DHA fatty acids. Consuming adequate omega-3s offers tremendous health perks like improving heart and brain health, lowering blood pressure and triglycerides, reducing arthritis symptoms, boosting immunity, and enhancing skin and hair.

Poke made with salmon provides over 1000 mg of omega-3s per 3 ounce serving.

Provides Key Vitamins and Minerals

In addition to protein and healthy fats, poke bowls also supply critical vitamins and minerals. Fish provide high-quality vitamin B12, iron, zinc, potassium, selenium, and more. Pair your poke with brown rice, vegetables, avocado, edamame, and other superfood toppings for an antioxidant and phytochemical boost.

The diverse ingredients make poke a well-rounded and nutritious choice.

Considerations for Raw Seafood

While raw fish offers tremendous nutritional benefits, take care to source sushi grade seafood for preparing poke at home. Consuming raw seafood increases risks for contamination. When dining out, look for reputable restaurants that store, handle, and serve poke properly to reduce exposure to bacteria and parasites.

Those with compromised immune systems should take extra care with consuming any raw animal products.

How to Make Poke Bowls at Home

Choose Your Base and Protein

When making a Hawaiian poke bowl, you’ll first want to decide on your base. Popular base options include white or brown rice, quinoa, mixed greens, or even sliced vegetables like cucumber or avocado. For protein, fresh raw tuna is a classic choice.

Salmon, shrimp, octopus, and tofu for vegetarian bowls are also tasty options.

Prepare the Raw Fish Properly

As poke bowls feature raw seafood, it’s crucial to handle the ingredients properly to avoid foodborne illness. Be sure to rinse fish fillets under cold water and pat dry. Use a sharp knife to cut fish and vegetables to avoid bruising or crushing.

Store prepared poke ingredients in an airtight glass container over ice or in the refrigerator below 40°F to inhibit bacteria growth. Prepared poke should be consumed within 24 hours for safety.

Assemble Additional Ingredients

Some tasty mix-ins for DIY poke bowls are edamame, shelled soybeans high in plant protein, and seaweed salad, both common additions in Hawaii. Pickled ginger or chili paste can add flavorful kick. For crunch and texture contrasts in your poke bowl, top it off with sesame seeds, toasted coconut flakes, macadamia nuts, tempura flakes or crispy fried onions.

Mix and Enjoy!

When ready to eat, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl ensuring the tasty sauces and juices combine nicely. fork and spoon are perfect utensils for eating poke bowls. Adjust flavors if needed then dig into this delicious Hawaiian staple!

For sides, try seasoned seaweed sheets, lime or lemon wedges, steamed dumplings or spring rolls. And for an authentic touch, sip on a chilled coconut water or home-brewed iced tea.


Poke offers a truly authentic taste of Hawaii with its simple, fresh ingredients blending flavors of the islands. While once eaten mostly by locals, the increasing popularity of poke restaurants abroad has now exposed countless newcomers to the iconic Hawaiian dish.

From learning about its humble fishing origins to understanding the many varieties, flavors, and health benefits offered, we hope this guide provided plenty of insight into answering that prevailing question “what is poke?” Now armed with a deeper knowledge of poke, don’t be afraid to get creative and whip up your own Hawaiian-inspired poke bowls at home for family and friends!

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