By Chef Sam Choy
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Chef Sam Choy: Hello! Hi, I'm Chef Sam Choy and one of my favorite cookbooks that I've written is All About Poke, The True Food of Hawaii.
Suzy Chase: According to the Hawaiian dictionary, poke means, "to cut into cubes." It has been eaten in islands longer than any other food.
Tell us what poke is and give us a little history.
Chef Sam Choy: Well poke's a traditional dish throughout the South Pacific, but as you come to Hawaii, you find it much, much more refined in the sense of, like, in the earlier days, what they did was they ate a lot of reef fish because that's all they could go, right around the island. So what they did was cut the reef fish, bones and all, into cubes, or just sliced or chopped. And then of course it was added with sea salt, inamona, which is a candlenut, and then sea salad, which is seaweed. And that was pretty much it, and they let it kind of marinate for a few hours and then they ate it.
Suzy Chase: So how is poke different from other raw fish dishes in the South Pacific like poisson cru, or kokoda?
Chef Sam Choy: Well basically it's based more pure. You get to taste the fish, not in a fishy way, no, but in the freshness of the fish. It's not marinated in oil and salt, it's not cured in oil and salt, and coconut and milk, it's cured in just sea salt and a little bit of the kukui nut to make the flavor. I'm talking about before Captain Cook[inaudible 00:01:42] not before the sunrise come in or the plantation workers come in. And then the poisson [inaudible 00:01:51], basically the lime, the salt, the oil, cooks the fish, penetrates it. And then of course finish it with fresh coconut milk. Which is a not bad kind of poke. I like that poke too. I really believe that the ones that are in Hawaii are more focused on the fish being the main dish, you know, you can taste the freshness of the fish. So, that's the difference.
Suzy Chase: So as a young boy, your parents took you out to many, many restaurants. Do you think that this inspired you to become a chef and restaurateur?
Chef Sam Choy: Yeah, you know, my parents, it was very interesting upbringing in my house. On Wednesdays and Sundays you went to restaurants, so at a very young age, we knew how to order. We went out, we got to read menus, knowing the only thing we were told then, whatever we ordered, we eat. We can't say, like, well I didn't like it. So, that was a great learning curve.
But more importantly, our parents did a lot of cooking, raised our own vegetables, raised our own livestock. So, we always had fresh things from the garden. We also had fresh livestock, but we lived right by the beach, so then there was always fresh fish. And then the other thing, when I grew up, my parents used to make me get babysat by this fisherman right in Laie Bay, which is Hukilau Bay on Oahu on the North Shore. And basically I stayed there on the weekends and I could smell the salt from the fish nets. And you get to listen to these guys that are just part of the ocean and, they are always at the water, looking around and catching fish.
But the lesson that I learned from those guys, you never over-fish. You just take what you need. And that was just, my upbringing was very unique. And that's why I really am very passionate about poke, because that's what I ate as a young kid coming up. And the other thing that was really, really nice was that you got to live and learn these living lessons of not to over-fish, how to respect the ocean, how to keep it clean. So, for me personally, I've got really the best of both worlds in growing up and being a true trooper of poke.
Suzy Chase: One of your first jobs was at the Waldorf-Astoria here in New York City. What brought you to the city?
Chef Sam Choy: Well, it's a Hilton, and I worked for Hilton. And they asked for help out there, so I jumped on the plain and got to New York and Chef John Doherty, who was a chef there at the time, and, a kitchen is a kitchen, you know. That's one of the things that, when I do events all around the country, people go like, you just find yourself around very well. But a kitchen is a kitchen.
I hooked up with a great chef like John Doherty at that time I'm out there in New York, and we kind of hit it off like, he was to me, and got thrown into the lion's den and just started cooking, operating the line and being part of the team.
And you just fit in, and then they called me and said, "Oh, we need help for banquets," so I went upstairs to the banquet room. It's one of the hotels where they still service, where they plated the whole ten people, not individually now. It's French service where they brought the food to the table, then they stop right at the table.
So, it was a very unique, very young, very great experience for me. Fun place, great food, just great ethnic food from all different walks of life out there. It still is a great time to go visit. We always go up there and visit. One of the nicest things is that we got a lot of friends out there, the guys who own the Manhattan Food Exchange and Chelsea Market, Tomatillos. So we've always kept in touch. But the nice thing about working there was just the, one of the grand hotels in the country at that time.
Suzy Chase: Did you bring poke to the Waldorph?
Chef Sam Choy: I brought poke. I made poke.
Suzy Chase: [laughs]
Chef Sam Choy: Yep, I tell you something, man, I just got off of the Seabourn Odyssey. I got everybody hooked on poke on that ship. They're like, "Poke, poke! We want poke!" It really was funny. We're talking well travelers, guys been on the ship for like hundred something days. Guys been sailing for years and I make poke, and all of a sudden they're chanting, "Poke, poke! We want poke!"
Suzy Chase: That's hilarious.
Chef Sam Choy: And so for me personally, I'm getting ahead on maybe your question, but back to where all this started, it was a real great eye-opener for me, coming from Hawaii, where the only time you heard an ambulance or any kind of siren or anything was basically once or twice a month back then, when I was growing up. But New York, it was part of the music out there, and the horns honking and all the Yellow Cabs as I looked down from my room on the 34th floor. You know, kind of like, you pinch yourself and go like, am I dreaming or this is amazing. You talk about the one stop city, that's New York. And I'm excited, I heard there's poke now up there. There's some poke restaurants or little shops coming up now. I just hope they're doing it well, cause it's important to do it well.
Suzy Chase: So a couple of months ago I read an article in Vogue, and they said that Hawaiian food is sweeping the mainland. What do you think about that?
Chef Sam Choy: Well, you know what, that's always have been my goal. I don't want to say the word I but I've always pressed it. I mean, I've cooked poke year and years and years as a young guy and I always believed that sushi and sashimi, which is Japanese, it is a household name throughout the world. And I always told myself I believe that poke is a better style to serve the fish, and I want to have this become a household name. It's fired up on the west coast, it's firing up in New York. If it's gonna make it, that's where it's gonna make it, in New York. They know good food and then they like it, and if it's good, they gonna support it. So, that's a real good plus.
I'm really excited. I've made poke, I'm going to Washington, D.C. to do a big bunch of poke out there for a thing called Hawaii on the Hill. Everywhere I go, one of my menu items will be poke.
It's funny because when you use the word raw, you can see kind of like a double take. But then when you say it's poke, and don't use the word raw, of course in the beginning days, the earlier days, I mean, I remember doing a big fish event in Washington, and basically, I made poke. And you know, nobody kinda came near the beginning. And then all of a sudden I changed it to fish tartare, it's the same thing, but it's just tartare. I don't think they understand what P O K E means. So, yeah, I'm really excited. Boy, I tell you, it's in a heyday right now, but it's moving right now.
Suzy Chase: Most of your poke recipes call for local Hawaiian produce, but you have a fantastic substitution section in the back of the cookbook that was really helpful.
Chef Sam Choy: You know, I believe in writing cookbooks, it's not about your personal flavors, it's more about the education of allowing people to make the dish, whether they're in the middle of our great country or whether they're on the tips of our great country. So, I always believe that when you write recipes or if you give recipes, it's really important to give them opportunities to look at it, for one, and go like, well I think I can take a shot at making this. And that's always been in the back of my mind in writing or creating or doing things. To be great is one thing, but to be a person to share and educate, I think that's better than being great.
Suzy Chase: You know where I get my fish is near the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in the Chelsea Market. Have you been there? It's called Lobster Place?
Chef Sam Choy: Oh yeah, many times I've had lobster pots filled there, we walk in there all the time, getting fresh fish. They got a nice assortment of fresh stuff.
Suzy Chase: They do.
Chef Sam Choy: Yeah, they got the sushi bar too. They got the Japanese side too, right? Are they serving poke in there?
Suzy Chase: No. I went in there and I told them I was going to make poke, but they kind of didn't know what I meant. So I think you need to make a trip there.
Chef Sam Choy: Show them the book, yeah. Show them the book or I'll show up and you and I go in there and we'll make some poke, man. They gotta do it. A lot of people from Hawaii, I send them in there, and they call me back and goes, "Aww man, why the market? Annanana. It so busy. You got breads, you got this, you got that. Oh, the seafood, the lobster, the salmon, the fish. Where's the poke?" I say, well, it's coming.
Suzy Chase: The cuisine of Hawaii is a fusion of flavors brought to the islands around the world. How did a Hormel product, SPAM, become so popular in dishes?
Chef Sam Choy: Now you're in my wheelhouse, besides poke, SPAM. I give you the history on Spam. If you go to Hormel in to the museum, then you press the button, I come on and say, "Aloha! I'm Chef Sam Choy!"
But anyways, so Hormel took the challenge to create the dish of the item, and, of course, we have a German chef to create it. And basically, it was just there to feed the soldiers, the military people, men and women. And basically, it never left.
It's so funny, the different names they call it, the Hawaiian steak, or the meat in the can. And the, of course, you kind of hit this plateau, you kind of not teetered out but, just stayed at the level where people ate it at breakfast or dinners, or they hooked it SPAM and cabbage, kind of like a real big thing. A lot of local people like that.
And then the Japanese start bringing these sushi things, and then they create a thing called musubi, which is like a rice sandwich. You got two layers of rice. I think you've seen it. And a SPAM and sweet eggs in between and it's wrapped in a sushi wrap, a nori wrapper. I mean, once that came to Hawaii, back maybe 20, 15 years ago, SPAM just launched another level in Hawaii. So, that's how SPAM got its leg and that's how it's rooted here really deep. Even today as we were speaking, I'm sure there's maybe 50, 60 thousand people eating SPAM right now, this morning for breakfast.
Suzy Chase: I made your recipe for Poke Pie out of your poke cookbook on page 40. You have a quote on that page that says, "We eat with our eyes first." And that recipe definitely tasted as good as it looked.
Chef Sam Choy: You gotta hear this, so, that's what I made on the ship. I made a little poke pie, you know like really in the mole. And you pull the mole off and then you have a, you kind of like have it where you have the rice, you know how many layers, right?
Suzy Chase: Yep.
Chef Sam Choy: And the people were just amazed. They went, "Wow. This is amazing." And then when they got into it they went, "Wow!" I mean I had a lady at the table say, "I hate to tell you this but, I had four. I skipped dinner." I said, "What?" She goes, I said, "No I had a nice [inaudible 00:13:52] short ribs." She goes, "Short ribs, I can get at any time. Poke, only because you're on the boat and I've never seen it done by any other chef."
Yeah, so, you can now, unleash your creative juices, and you can do any type of poke pie. That way with the mayonnaise, but you can do like a Mediterranean, and if you follow the recipes in the book of different types of poke, then you can put it right on top of the rice. And it's really nice, the presentation's easy, and people just go, "Wow."
Suzy Chase: So what's new for you in 2016?
Chef Sam Choy: Ahh, we got a bunch of poke shops in Seattle coming up. I mean lots. We had the trucks in the beginning, now we are getting some brick and mortars. The only thing I would say about Hawaii, that handicaps us, we live in the South Pacific in the middle of the ocean, we're 2500 miles from any kind of mass of land, so our messaging or what we do here in Hawaii is kinda really slow to get out to the world the message. I always believe that that kinda handicaps us, but not anymore because of what you're doing right now, it helps to speed it along. So, that's my mission, to be a warrior and a believer in our food in Hawaii. It's really good, just need to get it out there.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Chef Sam Choy: Samchoy.com. Real simple. You got my poke books on there, you got everything on there.
Suzy Chase: Well thank you so much for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Chef Sam Choy: Thank you.