Chef Mark Noguchi didn’t grow up eating poke at home, though he was born and raised in Hawaii, where raw fish dishes date back to ancient times and eventually became ingrained in the Aloha State’s modern culinary culture.
“My father was the first Noguchi from Japan, so he loved raw fish, but he didn’t like poke,” says Noguchi, who worked at the famous Oahu restaurant Town and chef Mavro before founding The Pili Group, a restaurant, culinary education and community outreach organization. Fortunately, his mom’s brother, his uncle Jumbo, was an avid fisherman who would catch fresh aku, a type of bonito, and he would use it to make his own poke.
While poke is a dish of seasoned raw diced fish, often tossed with Japanese soy sauce (called soy sauce), sesame oil and a variety of other ingredients most often associated with ahi, a yellowfin tuna, aku is a more prized fish Hawaiian thanks to its rich flavor and high fat content.
“The reason you don’t see it as often is that it starts to deteriorate as soon as it dies. aku has a two-day shelf life, so it’s not suitable for restaurants, but I was lucky enough to grow up with poke aku,” recalls Noguchi, who grew up in Honolulu. “My uncle and his friends would go out, come back, cut it up and throw it with the soy sauce and everything else around.”
When he moved to Hilo on the island of Hawaii to attend college, Noguchi discovered he had a family there he didn’t know about because his grandmother and her sister were estranged. “Then I was on a mission to find my Hilo family,” he says. Meanwhile, he fell in love with the art of hula, which he credits with making him a chef, and says it ignited his passion for Hawaiian culture and cuisine. Dining with other hula dancers and his newfound family usually includes poking.
“Through the parties we threw, I was suddenly exposed to different types of poke and everything became super easy,” he says. “My aunt would do it with Opal. It’s a reef fish, a mackerel. It was the most amazing.”
Over the past 15 years, Noguchi has perfected his own poke recipe, combining his fish – most often fresh ahi – with his own homemade smoked soy sauce (although store-bought soy is good for home cooks, too), sesame oil fresh chili peppers tossed together, sweet onions, scallions and nori (called limu), with sesame seeds for garnish.
“The first piece of advice I learned was to salt the fish right after you dice it. It toughens the meat and draws out some of the blood. So when I dice it and salt it, I’ll put it back in the fridge with a paper towel and then I’ll leave it there for about an hour,” says Noguchi, who adds that only a half teaspoon of salt pounds per person will do the job and advises not to get too heavy on your sauce, either. “Anyone can season fish, but the trick is to season it enough to bring out the nuances.”
Another important piece of advice from Noguchi is that if you can’t get fresh ahi, skip it. Even if you can, if it’s being shipped from thousands of miles away, you’re better off finding some local seafood.
“What if you can get really good scallops where you are? Or locally caught salmon? Now you can take dishes and techniques from Hawaii and use local, sustainable resources,” he says. “My mantra has always been, ‘Cook what you want.'”
Chef Mark Noguchi’s Poke Recipe
Yield: 4-5 servings
- 1 pound premium fish or shellfish, cut into 3/4-inch to 1-inch cubes (if using lobster or shrimp, cook until 75%)
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt or sea salt
- 1 slice Hawaiian or Thai chili pepper, seeded and chopped
- ½ small onion, thinly sliced with grains
- ½ cup shallots, thinly sliced, reserving a tablespoon for garnish
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
- ¼ teaspoon good salt to finish
- 1 cup fresh limu (seaweed), blanched and coarsely chopped
- In a mixing bowl
In a mixing bowl, combine the diced fish or shellfish and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt. This will toughen your fish and begin the seasoning process.
- Refrigerate for about an hour. 3.
- Remove the bowl from the refrigerator and add all the ingredients except for 1 tablespoon of sliced green onion, sesame seeds and salt. 4.
- Stir well. 5.
- Taste and adjust to your liking, but do not mask the flavor of anything you poke. All the ingredients are meant to complement each other.
- Finish with a sprinkle of green onions, sesame seeds and salt. Serve immediately.
- If making a poke bowl for a trip, keep the hot rice and cold poke separate until you reach your destination.