If you’re bored with bao buns and rolling your eyes at ramen, don’t fret. Get ready to say aloha to Hawaiian food. Hawaiian cuisine, for many years synonymous with pineapple pizzas and luridly coloured cocktails, is having a moment in the sun. Kua ’Aina, the Hawaiian burger chain that counts Barack Obama among its fans, recently opened branches in London and Belfast. In Manchester, workers are spending their lunch breaks queuing for rice boxes at Hawaiian-inspired Wahu. And chef Gizzi Erskine has been Instagramming her way around the islands this month.
“If you go to Hawaii as a tourist, you might only get to sample the surfer fare. What I’m focusing on is very different,” says Byron Knight, the self-appointed “ambassador of new Hawaiian cuisine” and owner of Pond, in Dalston, east London. An industry veteran of 30 years’ standing (he was once head waiter at Nobu in New York), Knight opened Pond in 2014 after spending time on the Big Island in the Nineties.
What struck him was the diversity of the food. Hawaii’s cuisine has been influenced by Japanese, Chinese and Filipino migrant workers, as well as the Mexican cowboys who looked after the cattle ranches and American servicemen who introduced the locals to Spam during the Second World War. (Hawaiians are now the second largest consumers of the canned meat in the world.)
“Fusion food is something that happens organically in Hawaii,” Knight says. “Everyone is proud of their heritage, whatever that may be, and they want to show it off.” He decided to launch Pond in an industrial setting that is more South Bank than South Pacific. “I have huge respect for Tiki culture, but it has nothing to do with Hawaii,” he says. “It was invented in California.”
In a nod to Hawaii’s famous feasting parties, or luau, diners at Pond can order sea bass with ponzu, ginger and chilli, or whole smoked kalua pig (traditionally slow-roasted in an underground oven) for the table. “Everybody interacts,” says Knight. “That’s how people want to eat right now.”
The standout dish at Pond – and the one making waves elsewhere – is poke (pronounced poh-KEH). Meaning “sliced and diced” in Hawaiian, it’s cubed, raw fish on a bed of rice, generally tossed in a soy sauce-based marinade. Fans compare the dish to Japanese sashimi, or that other popular raw fish dish, Peruvian ceviche.
“Because Japanese cuisine is so big right now, people understand the format,” says Guy Jackson, of London-based street food stall Eat Poke. Since June 2015, he and his business partner, Celia Farrar, have been serving poke to go at markets across the capital. They discovered it in the US, where the New Hawaiian trend first took off; in Los Angeles, restaurants such as Big Daddy’s Poke Shack and Mainland Poke have become destinations in their own right. Back home, they spent years tinkering in the kitchen before hitting the streets with a range of dishes that tick two of 2016’s big boxes: provenance and seasonality.
As well as salmon and tuna, their poke bowls feature bass, bream and mackerel. Each one is topped with crunchy homemade pickles. “Traditionally poke is served on white rice, but we’ve been playing around with brown and black rice to make it tastier and healthier,” says Jackson. “We’re never too upset if we don’t completely sell out, because we get to take some home.”
Today, the pair are regulars at street-food collective Kerb’s weekly markets, as well as London’s Street Feast. And with business booming, they’re hoping to open a “little poke kiosk” by the end of the year.
For those not lucky enough to live near a Hawaiian restaurant, poke is easy to make at home. The key is buying the best-quality fish you can find – try the Cornish Fishmonger’s tuna steaks (thecornishfishmonger.co.uk). Vegetarian or vegan? Just replace with tofu or beetroot. “The beauty of poke is you can do anything with it,” says Jackson. “The base of the sauce is soy, sesame oil, sesame seeds and onion, but you can mix it up. Add heat with chilli, or acidity with a touch of lime, or coconut.”
And if you’re feeding a crowd and don’t fancy cooking, the Hawaiian Fish Company (thehawaiianfishco.com) will deliver poke to your door nationwide. Choose from tuna or salmon with yuzu-citrus marinade or pineapple salsa, served with bottles of coconut water, from £8 a head. Making your guests wear flower garlands is optional.