Bait and Switch

If you live in any urban environment, you've likely heard of poke, the raw fish dish imported from the great state of Hawaii. A quick yelp search shows that there are at least 70 places in Manhattan that serve poke. The arrival of poke has been swift, but in a world of DIY bowls, can these new waves of restaurants even be called poke?

Mainland poke is firmly in the DIY camp, but if you’re eating poke in Hawaii, it’s a bit different. The word poke comes from the Hawaiian verb “to section” or “to slice or cut,” and its core, poke is chunks of pre-marinated fish. I talked to Hawaiian chef Lee Anne Wong of Sweetcatch Poke, one of NYC’s newest poke imports, and she described poke as “a traditional Hawaiian raw fish dish that dates back centuries.” Fisherman would cut up fish they caught and season with salt, seaweed, and roasted kukui nut to eat as a snack. “Modern day poke marries the flavors of Pacific Rim cuisine with the tradition of fresh-caught, raw fish,” Lee Anne says, “but by tradition and definition, Hawaiian-style poke is always pre-marinated to add flavor and texture.” To Hawaiian’s poke is “a staple of almost any and every gathering in Hawaii that involves food,” Chef Lee Anne says.

The design your own bowl is a proven model, but Chef Lee Anne didn’t see that as authentic poke. “The current poke trend that is sweeping the mainland is an aberration of poke, closer to Japanese-style chirashi bowls.” she says. Most mainland locations don’t pre-marinate their fish, which is a hallmark of Hawaiian poke. Poke is most often served by the pound in Hawaii and “the fast casual business model of ‘build your own bowl’ is not how poke is sold in Hawaii,” Chef Lee Anne pointed out.

Chef Lee Anne (right) shopping for fish. Photo courtesy of Sweetcatch Poke.

Chef Lee Anne (right) shopping for fish. Photo courtesy of Sweetcatch Poke.

Sweetcatch opened quietly in late 2016 and was serving “an honest representation of poke .. standing by the tradition of pre-marinating their fish.” Chef Lee Anne designed a menu that featured fresh, seasonally-inspired, pre-marinated poke, and based on early reviews, New Yorkers loved it. But, less than three months later, they changed their model to the DIY assembly line like every other poke place. So what happened?

Before I even had a chance to try their pre-marinated poke, I noticed on Yelp that a few users had complained that Sweetcatch switched their model from by-the-pound to DIY bowl. The DIY bowl still tastes good, but agreeing with Chef Lee Anne’s original statement, I don’t feel like I am eating poke. But, the DIY bowl option is by far the most popular way to lunch in Manhattan, and that’s what the market wanted. “Unlike other poke places, you are unable to customize what you get in that bowl,” one agitated Yelp reviewer wrote right before Sweetcatch switched their model.

Sweetcatch poke + Milk Street Magazine

Sweetcatch poke + Milk Street Magazine

Whenever a business calls itself traditional or authentic, it’s immediately held to a higher standard. So what does this mean for the traditionality and authenticity of a dish that is so ingrained in the food culture of Hawaii and beyond? In the case of a Sweetcatch Poke model-pivot, the market dictated what Sweetcatch eventually became, instead of Sweetcatch successfully introducing traditional poke to Midtown Manhattan.  It should be said that the DIY bowl isn’t a bad thing — it’s actually quite good — but does everything need to be turned into a DIY bowl model? I had high hopes that Sweetcatch and their original model would catch on, but maybe the Mainland is just not ready for this kind of tradition. In the meantime, the DIY bowl model is creating a new tradition, all it’s own.

Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.