There is no doubt in many mind, that poke has gone from a fringe cultural delicacy to mainstream America. Variations of the dish can be found on haute cuisine menus from California to Maine with names like tuna tartare, tuna tower, but it’s really poke, right? References to the dish on the A&E’s series Weeds seemed to mainstream America’s stamp of approval.

John Derrick
Published on: 08-05-2018
Published by: John C. Derrick

Those in Hawaii know that no real chef can advance to celebrity status in the islands without having a stellar poke recipe. The efforts to develop the island talent and their recipes are support via an event called the poke contest. There are several each year and while most stir up fun and excitement, there is really only one that is authentic. The contest is a casual affair held at the Sheraton Keauhou on the Big Island of Hawaii. Run by Hawaii’s beloved chef that made poke a mainstream dish and single handedly sent tuna prices forever through the roof, Sam Choy is not only a poke expert he is a Big Island boy.

Sam Choy is a Kona boy born and bred. He started his rise to stardom via a small and very unassuming restaurant tucked away in Kona’s Kaloko Industrial Park just a block from where the Costco Kona now stands. Today, several pounds lighter, several cookbooks and restaurants later, he is home once again. This time with a new glorious casual restaurant in Keauhou called the Kai Lanai. His fabulous poke and his famous Pacific Rim cuisine is served up with spectacular panoramic views of the Kona Coast. Those looking to soak in a bit of poke paradise while on the Big Island can book a lanai table at Sam Choy’s stellar new restaurant Kai Lanai. Sweeping coastal views, fresh fish, casual open-air atmosphere and no resort snootiness!

This year’s contest drew several Big Island chefs including Nakoa Pabre of the Umeke Restaurant in the heart of Kailua-Kona, and the team of Elmer Tabudlo and Henry Mateo of the Waikoloa Marriott’s Hawaii Calls Restaurant. The challenge took place in several categories. Professional Division was championed by the team from Waikoloa with their Traditional Poke recipe which included green ogo and waiwaiole seaweed both specialty items. The master from Umeke Restaurant won the overall category with his Lemon Line Poke in the Professional Division with Shoyu.  Kaffir Lime stalks and cubes was the winning twist on an otherwise simple recipe. The Professional Spicy Division was captured by the Waikoloa Team with an exotic concoction that included wana, opihi. tako, tobiko and inomona.

Sam Choy’s Poke Contest is held annually around mid-March at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay along the Kona Coast of the Big Island. It is fun and light-hearted event to get islanders in on the action while helping local talent excel. Tickets are under $10 per person and purchases benefit the Hawaii Community College Palamanui Facility.

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