In ancient times, fish was a staple of the Hawaiian diet, often eaten as raw chunks mixed with limu (seaweed) and inamona, a relish of mashed and roasted kukui nuts and paakai (sea salt). Today, that dish is called poke (it rhymes with “OK”), which means “to cut crosswise into pieces.”
It’s a delicacy gaining global popularity, and variations of it are limited only by the preparer’s imagination — think: octopus, shellfish, pipikaula (dried beef) and freshwater fish such as salmon. Contemporary seasonings — among them, Japanese miso, Korean kimchee and Thai sriracha — represent the many ethnic groups that now call the Hawaiian Islands home.
Poke is one of Hawaii’s must-try specialties, and it’s on the menu of many eateries statewide, often served atop rice in “poke bowls.” There are even annual poke festivals; The Kauai Poke Fest, for example, is set for June 3 this year.
What’s more, these five hotels offer poke-making classes that include history lessons, ingredients, instructions and tastings. (Note: They are open only to registered guests, advance reservations are required and schedules are subject to change.)
1. Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina
Aficionados claim ahi (yellowfin tuna) is the go-to fish for poke, but Michael Arnot, executive chef for Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, prefers au or nairagi (types of marlin) if they’re available.
“They have a little firmer texture than ahi and a slightly more oceanic flavor, but they’re not fishy,” he said.
During his hands-on poke class, Arnot points out the variety and portability of poke, while participants mix their own with fresh fish and an assortment of other ingredients, such as furikake (a dried condiment), pickled daikon and tobiko (flying fish roe).
Arnot’s favorite poke contains limu, paakai, scallions, shoyu, raw onion, crispy onion, sesame oil, Hawaiian chili flakes and a spicy sauce, such as his made-from-scratch aioli.
“Poke is delicious alone, but it’s even better with furikake rice,” he said. “The saltiness and umami of the furikake really enhance its flavor.”
Offered: Wednesdays at 2 p.m.
Cost: $195 per person
Duration: One hour
Note: Complimentary poke demonstrations are held periodically in a public area of the hotel.
2. The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, Oahu
Eric Oto, executive chef of La Vie and Quiora restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, has 35-plus years of experience as a shoreline and deep-sea lawaia (fisherman) — expertise that’s evident as he conducts The Art of Poke class.
Oto explains how lawaia of old caught their bounty with hooks made of shell and bone, and nets and traps woven with hau and ieie vines. He demonstrates how to fillet a whole fish and slice a large chunk of it, as well as prepares five or six kinds of poke for participants to sample.
“The keys to good poke are quality fish and paakai,” Oto said. “Paakai has about 70 nutrients and trace minerals, which bring out the umami of fish. Avoid overmixing the fish with other ingredients, which can result in a sticky mouthfeel.”
Offered: By reservation only, at least seven days in advance
Cost: $250 per person
Duration: 1.5 to two hours
Note: The venue is usually La Vie’s private dining room; however, the class can be held in a guest’s suite if it has a suitable kitchen.
3. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Oahu
At first glance, you might not pair poke and sake (Japanese rice wine) together, but this class — named just that — proves they’re actually great together.
During the Sake and Poke class at Aulani, participants sample sake from Kyoto and Niigata, Japan, with two types of poke: “Hawaiian-style,” made the traditional way; and “Asian-style,” which incorporates soy sauce, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds and fresh ginger juice. When immigrants from Japan, China and Korea came to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations, they maintained ties with their homelands in part by cooking comfort food with these familiar seasonings.
The class promises a few surprises, but what isn’t surprising is the feeling of camaraderie that poke engenders.
“In Hawaii, poke is usually served as a pupu, or appetizer, shared by a group,” said Aulani chef Greg Gascon. “Friends and family ‘talk story’ and enjoy it with a few drinks, which sets the mood for a fun and happy gathering.”
Offered: Fridays at 2 p.m.
Cost: $75 per person
Duration: One hour
Note: Participants must be at least 21 years old and a member of the Disney Vacation Club timeshare program.
4. Hualani’s, Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences, Kauai
Those with time and inclination can participate in two poke activities at Hualani’s, the oceanfront restaurant at Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences. First, they can embark on a 60- to 90-minute tour of Timbers Kauai’s 16.5-acre Farm at Hokuala to learn how popular poke ingredients such as parsley, limes, avocados, green onions and chili peppers are grown.
After harvesting what they like, they can then head to Hualani’s, where the class resumes with a member of the culinary team (held either indoors or outdoors, depending on weather conditions). They explain how and where local fish are caught, as well as the importance of plating and proportions to create dishes that both look and taste delicious. Meanwhile, participants make their own poke bowl, using the fresh herbs and produce they’ve picked.
“A glass of dry or off-dry white wine complements the flavors of Hawaiian-style poke, and sparkling renditions mingle perfectly with the briny notes,” recommends hotel chef Michael Young.
Offered: By advance reservation, according to guests’ schedule; there’s no set day or time.
Duration: One hour
Note: There’s a maximum of four participants, ensuring an intimate experience.
5. Four Seasons Resort Lanai, Lanai
The Hawaiian Poke Demonstration at Four Seasons Lanai is really more than that: After a resort chef shows participants how to properly handle a knife, they wield the blade themselves, carefully cubing fresh ahi, salmon and yellowtail tuna to make three different kinds of poke.
As guests work, they learn about the characteristics of each fish and are encouraged to experiment with ingredients such as onions, furikake, shoyu and spicy mayonnaise.
“The term ‘culinary arts’ covers several things,” said Amir Nematipour, executive chef for Four Seasons Resort Lanai. “Even a simple dish such as poke requires a range of skills and knowledge, from understanding how ingredients work or don’t work together to presentation, including garnishes and choosing the right serving plate or bowl."
Offered: Mondays through Fridays upon request, between 12 and 3 p.m.
Cost: $255; $300 if paired with two glasses of wine
Duration: One hour
Note: Private classes can be arranged, and demonstrations include recipes for participants to try at home.