2016 was the year of the so called “poke revolution” in which we saw a country-wide surge in the number of restaurants centered around and/or serving the classic Hawaiian raw fish dish. Touted as a fresh, healthy, and affordable fast-casual dining experience, it’s easy to understand poke’s appeal to mainland appetites newly acquainted with this island staple.
And while it’s certainly exciting that people are getting turned on to the joys of raw fish like ahi, and Hawaiian cuisine in general, it’s important for folks to understand a little bit about the fish they’re choosing to adorn their poke bowls with.
Caleb McMahan is media & marketing guy at Hawaiian Fresh Seafood in Honolulu. He has a background in biology, and has worked as a commercial fisherman, NOAA fisheries observer, and documentary filmmaker specializing in commercial fisheries.
“Not all poke is created equal, and I want people to know better than to gobble up whatever raw fish they can get their hands on because it’s trendy, convenient, cheap, or perceived as healthy. When it comes to poke and seafood in general there are some really important things to consider, from quality and taste to sustainability and economics. If folks could gain a greater appreciation for where the fish in their poke bowl comes from and the issues at play, I think they’d make more discerning choices as consumers and probably appreciate it even more.”
By far the most popular poke adornment is tuna which is commonly referred to as ahi. Ahi is actually a Hawaiian word used to describe both yellowfin and bigeye tuna and dates back to ancient times. Today, ahi is a ubiquitous term used to describe all kinds of tuna from all over the world. To the uninitiated this can be misleading and as Caleb points out, just because a product has ahi in its name doesn’t mean it lives up to the reputation of its namesake.
“Imagine if steak fajitas were the new food trend. Some restaurants are serving plates of home-made tortillas and carne asada with fresh pico de gallo while others are serving beef jerky wrapped in Wonder Bread and covered in nacho cheese. They’re two totally different dishes, but they’re both called “steak fajitas” on the menu. Next thing you know, the culinary world is abuzz talking about how fajita joints are popping up all around the country and articles are being written about the origins of the fajita, how they’re easy to make, and where to get yours etc. This is basically what I see happening with the poke trend. You see a lot of ‘hawaiian style tuna’ or ‘ahi poke’ on menus and in many cases that’s not what’s really being served”
While his analogy seems comical, Caleb is actually serious about distinguishing between what’s actually fresh ahi and what’s not but still being labeled as such in order to capitalize on a food trend.
“The US imports 90% of its seafood. Tuna constitutes a big chunk of that. The problem is that these imports compete directly alongside what US fisheries are producing and it’s not exactly a fair deal. First of all, it’s a lot cheaper for industrial foreign fleets to catch, process, and export their product here when they don’t have to comply with the strict regulatory oversight that US fisheries operate under. So imported tuna is way cheaper than the product coming out of Hawaii, creating a disproportionate conservation burden on our fisheries. Of course any sensible person wants a good deal, but my concern is that people don’t recognize what they’re buying into when making a decision based on price point alone.”
So what is the harm in sourcing something called “ahi tuna” from the Philippines, Indonesia, or Marshall Islands for example?
“It’s exceedingly difficult if not outright impossible to know the origins of an imported tuna product or its chain of custody from when it was caught to when it's put in your poke bowl,” says Caleb. “On top of that, most imported tuna products bound for the US market are not fresh, but frozen and usually treated with carbon monoxide to give it the look of a fresh product. A piece of carbon monoxide treated tuna will look bright red after sitting in your garage for 2 weeks. People assume that because it’s raw fish that it’s automatically fresh and healthy. I would say that eating raw fish that’s been frozen, thawed, treated with carbon monoxide, then frozen again before being thawed yet again and tossed on some kale or rice isn’t healthy and it’s certainly not fresh.”
Concerns have also been raised about the sustainability of the poke trend given that not all tuna stocks are in good health. While consumer awareness is exactly the thing that Caleb is promoting, he says that what consumers need is good information in order to make smart choices.
“It’s true that bigeye tuna is a species that has classified as overfished in the greater Western Central Pacific. But it’s frustrating to hear people take this information and use it to make a generalized case for not eating it. The truth is that most overfishing is occurring in the equatorial Pacific where foreign fleets are fishing. The fresh tuna that comes out of Hawaii is not caught in this area. The Hawaiian fleet is regulated by strict, enforced quotas, management measures regarding protected species, and other gear restrictions making it an international model for sustainability. If other fleets could live up to these types of standards, we might not have a problem to begin with. So if you’re concerned about making sustainable seafood choices, which is a good thing, the responsible thing to do is to leave imported tuna alone and support the Hawaii tuna fishery which is playing by the rules and setting a precedent for responsible commercial fishing.”
Another selling point of poke that has been driving the trend and that’s been written about extensively is that it’s a more affordable alternative to sushi. Indeed, the concept of fast casual dining precludes excessively high prices and everyone likes to get a deal, but again Caleb urges caution to consumers.
“Like everything else, you get what you pay for. But when you’re talking about raw fish this is especially true. Raw fish is a delicacy, it’s special. If you’ve only got five bucks to spend on lunch today, maybe raw fish isn’t the best choice. Or maybe you’d still really like some ahi, in which case I would say that hands down, a quarter pound of a good product from a source you can trust is going to have more value than a half pound of mystery meat. But aside from the economics, the sustainability and the labeling issue is the fact is that Hawaiian tuna, that is to say real ahi really does taste better.”
So does fresh Hawaiian tuna really taste better than imported products available at a fraction of the cost? It would seems logical that the only way to find out is to try it, and the only way to know what’s really in your poke bowl is to ask whomever is serving it.
“The poke trend has certainly added value to terms like ahi, hawaiian tuna, hawaiian style etc. But at the end of the day it comes down to getting good information, thinking for yourself about what’s valuable to you, and then making the right choice. Unfortunately, when you’re in the midst of a food trend, it can be hard for a consumer to discern between opportunistic marketing and truthful labeling.”
As a take-away, Caleb suggests that anyone looking to get their ahi poke fix should be willing to ask some questions about what’s in their poke bowl.
“First off, there is no shame in asking where the fish is from. If the person serving you raw fish doesn’t know or can’t find out where it’s from, they shouldn’t be serving it and you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Ask if it’s fresh or if it’s been previously frozen (treated with carbon monoxide). See what they say. Eating imported fish isn’t going to kill you. It probably won’t make you sick. But if you’re spending your hard earned money on something with the word ahi, hawaiian, or poke in it, you should know exactly what you’re getting. And at the end of the day our purchasing decisions as consumers really do make a difference when it comes to the sustainability of fish stocks.”
Hawaiian Fresh Seafood is the only direct source, wholesale provider of Hawaiian tuna, swordfish, and other pelagic fish species. If you’re interested in sourcing fish directly from those that catch it and who can consistently deliver the highest quality product in the seafood marketplace, you can find more information on their website, facebook, or instagram page (@HawaiianFreshSeafood) or give them a call directly at (808) 845-8862.