Who Knew Poke Was So Sacred?

I live to eat. Therefore it would be fitting that my very first piece would be about food. I came across this article through a friend and, following my long winded rant, I decided that this would be a perfect first topic.

Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi — whose nickname is also a slang for the flap of skin between nutsack and anus — took issue with the “resonating implications” of poke being spelled poké, with a diacritical mark over the e, by a New York-based restaurant. According to Chef Gooch, respelling poke in such a way was akin to someone, after failing to correctly pronounce your name, changing the spelling instead. Going so far as to say he was “pissed” and using up valuable internet space to do so, Chef Gooch attempted to bring to light the bigger issue of one culture (a.k.a. white people) “stealing” parts of other cultures for profit. Instead the Gooch Man segued into a convoluted argument where widespread consumption of poke would deplete the world’s supply of ahi (because, of course, poke is the only dish in which tuna is served). And it was at this point I knew Noguchi was full of shit.

On the main issue of respelling poke, Chef Gooch claims that the arduous task of correcting a person’s pronunciation of poke (poh-kay, not pohk) was “all part of the process” and that respelling it phonetically for branding was another example of the continued commodification of Hawaiian culture. For good measure, he also writes as vaguely as possible about how sacred and steeped in Hawaiian tradition poke is.

Poke today is far from the traditional Hawaiian poke of yesteryear. Poke in its current form (popularized by such local chefs as Sam Choy and Alan Wong) didn’t arrive until the 1970s. Much of modern poke actually takes its influence from Japanese cuisine (shoyu and cubed sashimi) while other aspects borrowed from various other cultures (such as onions, sesame seeds, and other ingredients). Even today, Chef Alan Wong and others are changing poke, playing with various flavors and ingredients to design the newest twist on the Hawaiian staple. With poke today itself borrowing from so many other cultures, how can Noguchi (or anyone else for that matter) say with good conscience that another culture can’t then “borrow” poke and change it to make it their own?

When Chef Gooch said the obsession over how it “comes in a bowl” was funny, he lost me. For someone preaching cultural sensitivity, hating on people who do not eat certain foods in bowls and find it interesting that a dish like poke is served in a bowl is pretty insensitive. In defending his position, Chef Gooch writes rather matter-of-factly, “We Asians have been eating out of bowls for generations. Polynesians, too, [out of coconut bowls]…It’s the most efficient way to eat, and when you get to the bottom, you can raise it to your mouth and shovel the rest in.” What the fuck are you talking about? Chef Gooch is basically saying, “Asians and Polynesians have been shoveling food out of bowls like barbarians for generations! How can white people possibly not know poke — a food which many of them can’t even pronounce right — is eaten from a bowl?! HA! I laugh in the face of ignorance!” Furthermore, Noguchi seems to take more issue with white peoples’ interest in poke served in bowls than locals’ interest in Alan Wong’s poke stacks (which I find repulsive).

Having been born and raised in Hawaii, I don’t have a problem at all with the popularity of poke spreading to other parts of world nor do I have an issue with the word being phonetically spelled. Maybe on some level he is allowed to take issue with other cultures profiting from a dish considered “Hawaiian” without knowing the history of the dish. But then again does one consider the rich history of Frankfurt, Germany every time you bite into a hotdog? While an argument can be made about the commodification of Hawaiian culture, it isn’t here. Between development of Kaka’ako and the the souvenir section at Walmart, there are bigger fish to fry.

Further Reading:


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