As a lover of ahi, typically yellowfin tuna, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of ahi poke, bite-size pieces of the raw fish marinated in seasonings, limu, sesame seeds and soy sauce. What I’ve learned: Every seafood preparer in Hawaii who makes it believes he or she offers the finest ahi poke around.
“If you go anywhere else–even other Foodland [stores]–I doubt you’ll find poke prepared like mine,” says Steven Agbayani, who works in the seafood department of Foodland in the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The staff at Tamashiro Market on North King Street claim their “ahi limu with kukui nut poke” is “as good as it gets.” And the Poke Stop has been endorsed by Guy Fieri on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-in’s, and Dives for its varieties on the poke theme.
I tasted a few variations for this article. Foodland’s popular spicy ahi poke, I was told, was “freshly made” using tombo ahi. According to Agbayani, tombo ahi, or albacore tuna, is usually previously frozen and CO-treated, but prepared fresh daily. Because of its abundant availability, previously frozen is cheaper than most other poke dishes: You can get a lunch bowl for $6.99.
At Poke Stop Mililani, I had their Maui sweet onion ahi poke ($14.95 a lb). The flavor had enough zest, but the texture was a little too chewy for my liking, but owner/chef Elmer Guzman assures his fish is not gassed or frozen.
Regardless of whose poke is the best, all are in agreement on one thing: Good poke requires fresh, top-quality fish.
But how do you know that ahi you’re enjoying is actually “fresh”?
Robert Townsend, who works in the Ala Moana mall and visits Agbayani at least four times a week for a bowl of his poke, says he knows he’s “getting the good stuff” when the fish’s flesh is a bright red.
But red doesn’t necessarily mean fresh, according to Peter Oshiro, environmental program manager for the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH). Poke is often frozen and treated with carbon monoxide (CO) as a preservative. When gassed with CO, the fish retains its red color.
Oshiro says sellers are required Federal law to label their tuna as “previously frozen” and “treated with carbon monoxide as a preservative to promote color retention.” But many fish sellers don’t comply with the label regulation. Instead, poke that’s been frozen and gassed often bears the label “freshly made,” which is misleading to the average consumer.
Will consumers choose a labeled product that reveals it was previously frozen and gassed?
“When I go into a store, I think ‘freshly made’ and ‘fresh fish’ mean the same thing–like it’s the catch of the day,” says Rachel Haritakis, a Foodland customer who regularly buys poke. Ahi treated with CO is “generally regarded as safe,”according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But Oshiro says lack of enforcement and educational resources from the DOH are reasons why many fish sellers don’t comply with the label regulation.
Foodland’s Agbayani says their poke is typically freshly caught; but when it has been treated with CO and previously frozen, they label it properly. According to him, the CO label hasn’t hurt their business. “Even though the label is visibly there, customers just end up [looking] with their mouth first, and not with their eyes,” he says. “We make sure to let our customers know to ask if they have any questions about our fish.”
Guzman encourages Poke Stop customers to sample everything. “Not only do I have to educate my customers, but I educate the people I hire first so they know exactly what they’re selling,” Guzman explains.
Cyrus Tamashiro, president of Tamashiro Market, says their stores usually carry fresh ahi, and only sell gas-treated fish when fresh supplies are low. He says the market always follows labeling regulations.
Other stores, though, are not so compliant, Oshiro says. Although he rarely receives complaints about mislabeled fish from consumers, he says that the DOH continues to do routine inspections of local markets and has increased surveillance of imported fish because of positive salmonella testing.
For the consumer’s part, besides checking the labels and ensuring your poke seller has gone through food safety inspection, Oshiro says, “The best way to know you’re getting good ahi is to [know] the reputation of the dealer. Customers should also look for a firm, shiny appearance with no decomposing odor. Good ahi should be almost odorless.”