As it turns out, Mele Kalikimaka really is the thing to say on a bright Hawai’ian Christmas Day. So, in honor of all my friends from The Islands Big and not-so-Big, I am saying “Merry Christmas” with a big bowl of poke. Of course, since this is a Holiday piece, I felt it necessary to make this raw tuna dish look as Christmas-y as possible, under the circumstances.
And why not?
I have been
terrified intrigued by the idea of an Hawai’ian Christmas ever since I was forced to participate in my elementary school’s “Salute to Hawai’i” Christmas pageant as a shy, bespectacled, backwards-shirted (you should see my class photo) second grader. I was impressed that anyone could pull together an hour’s Holiday entertainment singing nothing but Polynesian Christmas songs. Perhaps entertainment is too strong a word. Of course, I was also convinced that our musical director was binge-drinking.
Whatever the case, I thought I had successfully eradicated the horror of having to stand up and sing on stage wearing a hula shirt and grass apron in front of an audience of parents in cowl necked sweaters and three-piece corduroy suits forever.
When helping my friend Craig carry in his family’s Christmas tree last week, he started to good-naturedly threaten his daughters with the idea of creating a Polynesian-themed tree. “We’ll give it a grass skirt and top it with a big Pele,” he said. I chimed in by promising to decorate the tree with snowmen made of poi. The girls were unimpressed. I had thought referencing of the Fire Goddess Pele was a nice touch but, after lugging a ten foot Douglas fir into his house, I was privately casting my vote for Ulaulekeahi, God of Distillers.
And then I thought about how I on earth I was going to pull off poi-based snowmen.
As I was imagining rolling these poi-men in shredded coconut, the memories of that awful pageant came flooding back. Well, not flooding. Perhaps tricking back is a better term. But it was enough to make me shudder when I remembered our big show-stopper– “The Hawai’ian Twelve Days of Christmas.” Fortunately, I could only remember the first day (One myna bird in one papaya tree). If you really can’t live with yourself until you know what “tutu” gave to us on the other eleven days, you can read the lyrics here. I just thank the tiki gods that we didn’t attempt to sing this song in Pidgin English.
Well, I have chucked the idea of making poi-men this year because, well, poi happens to be one of the few foodstuffs I actually loathe. Why make Christmas more unpleasant than it already is? So, instead, I am making poke, which happens to be one of my favorite foodstuffs and, most conveniently, Hawai’ian.
Mele Kalikimaka, makamakas.
Serves 4 to 6
By the way, the word is pronounced poh-keh, or poh-kay, if you prefer. In Hawai’ian, poke means, roughly, “small piece” and, just as the name would imply, it is a dish of fish cut into small pieces, tossed with on-hand ingredients, and served up as a side dish– a sort of fish salad. You don’t find it on many restaurant menus (or didn’t– hopefully that is changing), but you can find it in most homes and even at Hawai’ian supermarkets in the deli section. It’s unassuming, fresh (it had better be– you’re dealing with raw fish here), and utterly delicious.
Some folks like their poke with rice, some like it lightly seared, and some, it’s true, like it hot. Personally, I like it raw and served with chips made of fried wonton wrappers. To me, it is a sort of Polynesian/Pan-Asian (just look at the ingredients) chips-and-salsa.
Give it a go, if you like. Just please make certain that you get the freshest possible tuna. Bargain hunting may be a practical skill when it come to buying a couch or a Persian rug, but you will not necessarily be well-served by it when purchasing fresh seafood. And, no, canned tuna will not do.
Lastly, there is no single “proper” recipe, so add whatever you like. Common ingredients include: tomato, green onions, Maui onion, macadamia nuts–whatever is in the house that might work logically with tuna. Go for it. My favored recipe is simple and straight-forward,
just like me.
1 pound fresh tuna, (ahi, yellowfin– something you might use when making sushi)
1/2 cup chopped, fresh seaweed
1 medium-sized shallot, chopped fine
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
A handful of black sesame seeds for garnish (which I forgot to add in the above photo. I wound up eating most of it standing over the sink before I even remembered about them).
Cut the tuna into 1/2″ cubes. Place in a large bowl and toss with seaweed, pepper flakes, shallot, shoyu, and sesame oil. Serve immediately or wait an hour or so to let the flavors blend.
Serve with fried wonton chips or sticky rice. Whatever you serve it with, just make sure you serve it on the same day it was prepared. This is, after all, raw fish we’re talking about.