A guide to poké and the street food of Hawaii

A guide to poke and the street food of Hawaii

by Tom Wildman 26 May 2016

Poke is poised to hit the UK in a big way this summer, but what actually is it and where can you get it? Read on to find out more about one of the year’s most talked about dishes, as well as other delicacies found on the streets of Hawaii.

A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

Although a history graduate, Tom soon realised his call for the culinary arts and trained for a Cordon Bleu qualification at Tante Marie Culinary Academy. He loves sharing his equal passions for food and travel, with Mexican and Vietnamese foods being top of his hit list. When not in the kitchen, he can be found out on a foraging trip or perhaps playing ultimate frisbee.

Pronounced ‘po-kay’ not ‘po-kee’, poke in its most basic form is chunks of raw fish in a marinade. Its origins are unclear, although Hawaiian fisherman are said to have eaten a form of poke using the offcuts of their catches for many years. Traditionally, the marinade is made from a combination of soy sauce and sesame oil, an influence from Hawaii’s large Asian-American population (the highest percentage in the United States).

Although poke has been featured on the menus of London’s few Hawaiian restaurants (there are just two or three) and most recently at the popular market stall Eat Poke, London is yet to have dedicated poke bar. With the dish having already taken California by storm, it was inevitable that London would soon follow. This June will see the arrival of Ahi Poke to Fitzrovia, a laidback all-day restaurant where customers can build their own poké bowl with a choice of traditional fish (ahi or yellowfin tuna, sea bream and salmon).

The arrival of poke will help put Hawaiian cuisine on the map in the UK like never before; even Pret a Manger is planning to roll out its own version using marinated mushrooms, pickled cabbage and avocado. However, when a food trend exposes us to a new cuisine it can be too easy to become fixated on one dish and forget about the other local specialities, as seen with Peruvian food when ceviche first made waves in the UK. Read on to discover seven delicious Hawaiian foods and be inspired to host your own luau (a traditional Hawaiian party).


Poke is one of Hawaii’s most common dishes. It can be found at beach shacks, supermarket delis and trendy high street bars all over the state’s islands. Part of the fun of poke is its versatility – other than using the freshest ingredients possible, there are no rules as to what you can include. Popular additions include wasabi, sliced onions, Hawaiian sea salt, limu (Hawaiian seaweed), pickles and kimchi. Although ahi and yellowfin tuna are most commonly used, poké is also made with other seafood such as octopus and salmon as well as chunks of avocado, mushroom and tofu for vegetarians. Today poke is most typically served atop a bowl of sticky rice, then garnished with any number of toppings. The main thing that distinguishes it from other raw fish dishes such as ceviche is the marinade, which is less acidic.

Spam musubi

Spam musubi

Hawaiians are famous for their love of spam – they are the second largest consumers of the canned pre-cooked meat in the world and even have varieties that are unavailable elsewhere (Honey Spam, Spam with Bacon and Hot and Spicy Spam). Affectionately known as ‘Hawaiian steak’, it was first brought to the island by American soldiers during the Second World War, where its long shelf life made it perfect for ration packs. It soon became a hit with the locals, leading to the creation of the Spam musubi. Slices of soy-glazed Spam are grilled until caramelised, sandwiched between sushi rice and wrapped in crunchy nori seaweed. While the idea of a Spam-based snack may not sound that appealing, it’s certainly worth trying at least once. After all, Barack Obama – Hawaii’s most famous son – is said to be a big fan.

Chicken long rice

The influence of Hawaii’s large Asian-American community can again be seen with this popular chicken noodle soup. Thought to be loosely based on a Chinese soup with a similar name, it originated in the 1800s when chickens were first brought to the island. Now a staple of a Hawaiian luau, chicken long rice is one of the island's most popular comfort foods. Translucent mung bean noodles, chicken thighs and lots of fresh ginger – the soup’s most characteristic flavour – are simmered in a fragrant chicken broth and garnished with spring onions and carrot.



When it comes to traditional Hawaiian foods, none are more highly regarded by the indigenous population than poi. Made by mashing steamed taro root with a stone until a smooth, thick paste forms, poi has a chewy texture and sweet flavour which gradually turns sour as it slowly ferments. Steeped in ancient Polynesian mythology, the taro plant represents Hāloa, the first-born son of the parents of the human race. When enjoying a bowl of poi, custom dictates that serious discussions and family quarrels are put to one side. Once an integral part of the Hawaiian diet, rising population and the loss of farming land to new housing developments has increased the price of taro and ready-made poi, making it harder for Hawaiians to regularly eat this traditional staple.

Loco moco

Loco moco

One of Hawaii’s most famous fast foods, loco moco can be found throughout mainland America. There are many different versions, but it typically consists of white steamed rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and rich brown gravy. Other variations include Spam, linguiça (Portuguese spicy sausage), Kalua pork, teriyaki beef, shrimp, mahi-mahi (a local tropical fish) and oysters The dish reportedly originated in Hilo, Hawaii in 1949, when a group of teenagers requested that the chef make a cheap alternative to a sandwich. For those looking to give it a try, the Hawaiian restaurant Pond in Dalston, London features an authentic loco moco dish on their menu.

Kalua pig

Kalua pig is probably the most iconic dish in Hawaiian cuisine, dating back to when the island was only inhabited by its indigenous population. A major tourist attraction at Hawaii’s many large hotels, a traditional Kalua pig is cooked in an underground oven called an imu. Typically, a whole pig is seasoned with Hawaiian salt, wrapped in banana leaves and placed in the imu to cook for six to seven hours. The result is tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat with an incredible smoky flavour.

Hawaiian fish tacos

When we envision Hawaii, we tend to think of a tropical paradise rather than a dusty cattle ranch, but surprisingly the state has a rich cowboy history. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the island was home to one of the world's largest cattle ranches, employing hundreds of Mexican cowboys. These cowboys influenced Hawaiian culture in a big way, particularly with their music, which first introduced the population to ukuleles, the instrument most closely associated with Hawaii today. Another major Hispanic influence can be seen with Hawaiian fish tacos. These little tortilla snacks are made with the freshest local fish and typically served with a tropical salsa, a spicy mayonnaise sauce and plenty of fresh coriander.