Walter Mencken 8:54 a.m., May 21
Last Wednesday, I had one of the best birthdays ever. Why? I spent the evening judging the 3rd Annual I Love Poke Festival. On that cool, serene night over 500 attendees gathered at Shelter Island’s Bali Hai Restaurant to eat poke and drink in Hawaiian culture. Like any food festival worth its current salt, it included a chef’s competition, hence my judgeship.
If you’re not familiar with poke (pronounced POH-keh), it’s a beloved Hawaiian speciality traditionally made with raw tuna that is cubed and lightly seasoned with ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger and onions.
At the competition, 11 chefs prepared two types of poke, traditional, which required tuna and “any kine,” which included a protein of the chef’s choice, such as salmon, pork belly and SPAM. Yes, SPAM. Don’t scoff. That SPAM poke from Hapa J’s nabbed 2nd place.
The competition was enlightening. Even in the traditional poke category, chefs showed their individuality through presentation, flavor components, and tuna quality. Though I loved eating poke before judging the event, I’m more deeply in love with it now.
After 22 tastings, poke and I went from living together to getting married. We’re fully committed through good and bad. And that’s the way I like it.
As for the judging, it was all blind. We didn’t know which poke dishes were from which restaurants. So we were just as eager to discover the winners as the winners themselves. The winners were:
Considering that I tasted 22 types of poke, the majority of which included raw tuna, it didn’t prevent me from going to Hapa J’s three nights later for more raw tuna. But that’s a future post.
For now, I’d just like to wish a warm-hearted mahalo to Nino Camillo, the founder of the I Love Poke Festival and voice behind ilovemusubi.com, a site dedicated to all things Hawaiian, for inviting me to be a judge. I’m already counting the days until next year’s festival. You should be, too.
Photos by Susan Russo.