Wait, What Did You Put In The Poke?

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” – Anthony Bourdain

Now you’re probably wondering why I’m quoting Tony here. There’s a reason. Stick with me.

I’m kind of a traditionalist where ethnic foods are concerned. Not that I don’t enjoy a good twist on a food but at the base of it, I encourage people to see out the authentic dish as much as possible. Sometimes you don’t have that choice where you live. I get that. I do. Because dude, you’re not going to find authentic lau-lau in Wisconsin but you might find a pretty decent pho bo kho. But how would you know? Right? Because you’re seeking out new foods and new experiences and you only know what you’re served.

It’s a quandary. And let me explain why I get tight-headed on authentic foods.

“Authentic poke”

Because poke bowls are possibly the shittiest representation of Hawaiian foods and culture and they make me mad. Unreasonably so. It’s insane. I know it’s a problem and solely my problem. (Damn it, poke is serious business in my family.)

But see, I get the accessible nature of it. I understand that. It’s difficult to deal with the horns of what-the-fuck-do-I-think because people are eating fish and liking it. But man, that’s not poke. It’s not a buffet of fish, starches and sauces served to you like you’re picking out ice cream at Coldstone’s. It’s got some passing nod to poke, I’ll give it that but the nod is brief and kind of like the one you’d get from someone going by you in the hall in high school who you might have recognized because you had a math class with them four years ago and you let them cheat off your paper.

Yet… does it fall under the “Let people enjoy their things”? Because it should. And yeah, it does.

But it’s not poke.

Someone I adore and who will recognize themselves in this post recently had loco moco which is an original dish created in Hawai’i during the times of cane field workers and bento boxes taken up the mountain to be eaten mid day. The version they had they loved… and it came with shaved fried taro and coconut rice.

I kind of threw up in my brain and railed at the outrage of what was done to a beloved local favourite… all the while knowing she loved it.

Then I realized I knew where the anger and outrage came from. Not just because someone hipsterized a loco moco but because of the tendrils of culture and memories attached to that single dish.

Cafe 100’s loco moco

There’s a people behind that plate. It’s a very simple creation. Stupidly simple and there ARE variations of it but the bottom base, high temple, held-in-sacred-words version of it is… two scoops of Calrose rice, a hamburger patty, brown gravy and fried egg.

Someone I know and really like didn’t get to taste an authentic version of a food I’d grown up with and I feel like she’s been cheated of knowing those people, those times and most of all, where I’d come from.

It sounds stupid. Trivial even. Yet at the core of our food experiences, we have our identities and in order to truly understand where someone’s from, you have to taste the beginning of their cultural foods. I truly believe that. There are going to be tastes we don’t care for. God knows, there’s cuisines I don’t care for because of the spice palette they use but that’s my own tastes and tongue. Nothing against their cultural foods. Even in my own experiences, I don’t like Japanese curries with a lot of turmeric but I love that kind of curry so “authentic” is definitely a variable based on who is cooking.

Back to the loco moco. Now this is from Café 100’s website. They don’t claim to have invented it but they’re really the ones who brought it into its own.

History of the Loco Moco
It’s unclear who assembled the first Loco Moco. History suggests that the cheap, easy-to-eat-on-the-go Loco Moco might have been concocted by a hungry customer at either Lincoln Grill or May’s Fountain, both long gone. People then started to request Loco Moco at Cafe 100 and by 1949 it was on our menu. Cafe 100 does not claim to have invented Loco Moco, but we have surely helped to popularize it.

What does the name mean?
Again, this is lost to history but it is possible that it was named after the inventive customer who’s nickname was said to have been “Crazy”. (Back then in Hilo town, almost every young man had a nickname.) Another notion is that “Loco” was slang for “Groovy” or “Cool” back in the ’40s. Others suggest that “Loco” is merely pidgin English for “Local”. In any case, “Moco” was probably tacked on to the name simply because it rhymed with “Loco”.

My great-grandmother, grandmother and some great aunts and uncles

Why is this important? I don’t know. Seriously. I have no freaking idea. Perhaps it’s because it connects me with my grandfathers and other family members because we ate down at Café 100 a lot. It was like getting the teriyaki plate at Dairy Queen or the curry stew down at Jimmy’s. It was a part of my childhood and still a part of my adulthood. Café 100 is still there, serving up loco moco and other local favourites in what is a typical open air Hawai’i-style diner we call Drive-Ins.

When we go out looking for our authentic foods, it’s usually because we’re far from home. We seek out the familiar and when we encounter a version of something that isn’t close to how something should be, it feels like someone’s stolen our sense of home, our sense of self. We all have that. This fried chicken isn’t as good as my auntie makes it or this adobo isn’t like I can get at home. And what the fuck have they put into this nori maki? Why is there pimento cheese in my sushi?

So, yes…enjoy your things. Please. But I also ask you to seek out the original and taste what it is to be at someone’s home, where it was created and all of the history and people who stand behind it. Taste and explore and most of all, bring the world into your life.

And no, there should never been cream cheese on a loco moco. That’s just a bridge too far. *grins*

Me and my mom.
Yes, no one wiped my face.
I was a grubby child.

5 thoughts on “Wait, What Did You Put In The Poke?

  1. Elf Vinson

    I’m going to have to try making moco loco. I was intrigued why Kai made it 🙂
    What should I look for in a authentic poke dish? I’ve seen a zillion recipes all claiming to be the real deal. I love trying new cultural dishes, especially when traveling.

    1. Ingredients should be simple… usually shoyu (soy sauce), sesame seed oil, green onions, regular onions. Sometimes miso. Sometimes mayo. Just fresh and marinated for a bit 😀

  2. Angela Banks

    Thanks for talking about this. I always like to get a glimpse at how my favorite writers think and am really thankful when they let us see something personal.

    I am considering trying to make this dish as well. It seems simple enough and not too hard to make for my limited cooking skills.

    Though since I’m not generally one for gravy I might end up doing something else with the sauce. (I’d be ecstatic to consider any suggestions for alternate sauces you might have) i’m the kind of person who gets experimental when ingredients don’t match up between a recipe and my own supplies and my personal schedule is odd enough so I often don’t have the ability to just go out and buy the stuff for whatever I’ve decided to make and if I like the result of the experiment will keep doing it that way.

    eg: I now regularly eat my perogies with sweet and sour sauce

    That was longer than I expected it to be. in short, thanks for the books and lessons in both history and food with helpful pictures.

    1. I honestly have no idea what you’d substitute for the gravy because that’s just a part of it.

      I guess you’ll have to find a taste you like and see how it goes. Which is okay! 😀

  3. Lyn

    I have a similar reaction to Chinese food done wrong. Growing up, all my relatives always always celebrated everything in restaurants with expatriate Cantonese chefs. I still refuse to eat in knockoff fast food Chinese places if they can’t be authentic enough.

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