Fifty years ago in America, quiche was an exotic, upscale dish only found in a handful of French restaurants in major cities. Snails were even harder to find. There were no Thai restaurants or sushi bars in this country, and going to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant was considered pushing the envelope.
Sushi is now sold in supermarkets, quiche is available at the local snack joint, and other forms of global cuisine are gradually invading our diets and consciousness. It may be hard to find Hawaiian restaurants (outside of California and the Pacific Northwest), but one dish seems to be capturing the Western imagination: tuna poke.
Poke may best be described as a dressed-up form of ceviche. The raw fish is enhanced with sesame oil, chili peppers, seaweed and sea salt, and typically served in a bowl with rice and vegetables. Most likely, it originated on fishing boats when sailors deboned their catch and used seasonings to liven up the leftover scraps.
The most interesting thing about the phenomenon of the poke bowl is the variety of restaurants in which it is served. At Buccan in Palm Beach, Clay Conley offers an elegant version with coconut chili sauce, hearts of palm, avocado and crispy yucca. At the other end of the scale, you can meander in to Duffy’s Sports Grill and order an Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl served over cilantro-lime rice and topped with avocado, scallions and toasted sesame seeds – just the thing when you’re watching the big game on TV, belly up to the bar.
Naples offers a similar culinary dichotomy. Roy’s, arguably the most elegant Asian eatery in the area, offers poke bowls made with ahi tuna, salmon or Hamachi. But you can also visit Tommy Bahama’s and order an Ahi Poke Napoleon as an appetizer, served on a flatbread with capers, sesame and guacamole. Poke bowls are also available at an assortment of venues ranging from Blue Martini to the Naples Grande Beach Resort.
So what has changed? Jet travel, for one thing, has made the exotic commonplace. Food TV has also had an enormous impact. In 1966, if you knew about (or even made reference to) quiche or sushi, you were regarded as arrogant and weird. Today, you’re just cool.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.