It’s a passion and an iconic piece of Hawaiian culture. And to dozens of focused contestants and hundreds who waited in line to taste the result on Saturday, poke was everything.
The traditional delicacy was at the center of a contest at Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, part of the Hawaii Island Festival’s 30-day celebration of culture and heritage.
Prior to opening the resort’s Alii Ballroom and its poke dishes to public opinion, contestants scrambled to plate up their creations in miniature servings and set up elaborate booths decorated with seafood, shells and pieces of Hawaiiana. Musashi Young, a cook at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, dished up ahi with fern shoots, fine seaweed, cherry tomato and red Hawaiian salt. Young, who would go on to win in the professional cooked poke category, said it’s all about balancing the flavors.
Chef Jason Verdun elaborated on that choreography of flavors.
“You want to be able to taste the fish, but you want to be able to taste the other ingredients,” said Verdun, owner of Poke Da Dog in Waimea and a French Culinary Institute graduate who catered the TV show “Law &Order” from 2001 to ‘02.
Poke evokes umami, Verdun said, a Japanese word for the fifth taste along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
“It’s what your body craves, from a memory, maybe, and your body wants it again,” said Verdun, a couple of hours before his poke with soy sauce took first place in the professional division.
In the judge’s room, the air was heavy with the smell of sesame and odors of the ocean: ahi, octopus, opihi, limu, sea urchin. Eleven judges in the amateur division had 29 entries to taste and five people judging the work of professional chefs had to distinguish the subtleties of 16 creations.
The task prompted discussion and debate. The taste sharpened brains and taste buds.
“The poi helps clean the palate,” said Todd Mardon, a judge in the amateurs division. “The flavors blend together at times, but if you have poi and beer, it helps a lot.”
In the Alii Ballroom, several hundred people acted as their own judges of the four categories: traditional poke, poke with limu, poke with soy sauce and cooked poke. To Cynthia and John Bohm of Manhattan, who tasted their way through a half dozen samples, the flavors were all sparkling new.
The Big Apple’s nearest answer to the Hawaiian delicacy is sushi, they said.
In New York, “You spend the night in the poke,” John Bohm joked, repeatedly gliding away from his table to try a new flavor.
“Delicious, unbelievable,” he said. “I wish I could get more of it at home.”
Jayson Kanekoa, executive chef at the Marriott, said the freshness of each ingredient plays a huge role in the success of the dish. A fan of traditional poke, Kanekoa gathers his own opihi, wana and limu from the ocean.
“I want this to become an event where all of the hotels come out,” Kanekoa said. “We would eventually want to fill up this ballroom.”
The strong turnout of contestants pointed to the strength of the poke tradition on the Big Island, said Jerry Refamonte, one of the judges in the professional category and director of operations at the Marriott.
“Poke is such a big part of the Hawaiian culture,” Refamonte said. “Everywhere you go now, even on the mainland, it’s such a big thing. It’s nice to see the local talent being so creative with that delicate ingredient.”