Chicago’s Aloha Poke pokes the bear

The recent “Aloha Poke” uproar shows that true aloha cannot be bought or sold. Let’s unpack what has become another social media culture war. And name some of the best poke places on Oahu.

The Hawaii fresh fish staple poke has been embraced all over the world. It’s been adapted and interpreted by chefs in a zillion ways. It’s been the matter of much debate in recent years, as purists decry the fact that someone somewhere else prepares and sells something that has nothing to do with the fresh fish or ingredients that make up traditional poke.

When Aloha Poke, a chain restaurant in Chicago that trademarked the name, issued a cease-and-desist order to other businesses nationwide to stop using the word “aloha” in their name, it created controversy. There are many so-named establishments, in Hawaii and Alaska and elsewhere, who received the order.

When the story was reported by local and national media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, it sparked an immediate and largely negative response, started a legal battle, and spawned a protest in the streets of Chicago.

A poke experiment. Photo courtesy Pixabay.

It’s preposterous, people said, that anyone, particularly someone who is not Hawaiian, is telling native Hawaiians that they cannot use the word “aloha.” It’s so opposite of what the word means as to make the attempt to profit from it laughable, but also somehow sinister. The idea is inconceivable to any business or person here in Hawaii.

That a cynical businessman from Chicago (or anywhere else, for that matter) would be oblivious to the insult comes as no surprise. So, let’s focus on the connection between the food and the meaning of aloha.

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Whatever an upstart foodie entrepreneur might concoct in a food truck in Brooklyn or Seattle or Santa Fe, traditional poke will always and only be raw, fresh fish. The history of poke and how it became a dietary staple in Hawaii is well documented. Raw tuna (ahi or aku), octopus (tako) are cubed and dressed with various ingredients. Soy sauce (shoyu), sesame oil, onions, rock salt are most common. Clams, scallops, and other varieties of available fresh fish are used, too.

There are myriad varieties of poke in Hawaii, many unique to the merchants and restaurants that sell them. That’s where the “aloha” part comes in when discussing the Hawaii favorite. There are dozens of family-owned and operated businesses that make their poke fresh every day. They buy the fish from friends or family. The folks at Tamura’s, for example, know that the poke will be enjoyed by the buyer’s family and friends. Or that it will be a hungry laborer’s lunch.

Poke at Tamura's.

So what if a Chicago restaurateur serves a stock exchange jockey who wants a quick lunch of farmed, flash frozen and thawed tuna with organic beets and kale? Who cares? I’ll leave the finer culinary intricacies to the experts.

The problem lies in Aloha Poke’s attempt to preclude others from using the word “aloha.” There has been a push-back against “cultural appropriation” across industries, and people in the foods industry are at the forefront. Those now aligned against the Chicago chain are angry and puzzled that anyone might try to keep a Hawaii owner business from using the word in their name.

When a large crowd protested in front of Aloha Poke in the heart of Chicago, video went viral on social media. It didn’t take long for Aloha Poke to issue an apology. Folks at home in Hawaii, and people with Hawaii ties everywhere cheered. Not all press is good press.

Here are some favorite poke spots for Oahu residents. All offer the freshest poke available anywhere. None of them require the word “aloha” in their names. It’s already in the poke.

Ahi Assassins
2570 S. BERETANIA #204
HONOLULU, HAWAII
808.372.2930

Tamura’s Fine Wines

(multiple locations statewide)
Tamashiro Market
802 North King St., Honolulu, HI 96817
(808.841.8047