Poke Poke the UAE’s first poke restaurant opens in Dubai

The founders of new restaurant Poke Poke tell how The National are adapting Hawaiian dish poke – a type of raw-fish salad – for modern tastes without betraying its traditions.

From left, Jeremiah Dupin, Justin Telles and Matthew Schaeffer of Poke Poke. Victor Besa for The National
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Just when you think there are no new cuisines left to take the UAE food ­market by storm, along comes Poke Poke. The country’s first poke restaurant, it opened its doors last week in Dubai on Jumeirah Beach Road.

If you have never heard of poke, do not worry – you are not alone. Poke (pronounced POH-kay), a traditional dish from Hawaii, is basically a raw-fish salad.

Modern-day poke has been a staple of Hawaiian cuisine since at least the 1970s, but somehow, it did not take off in the rest of the United States – or anywhere in the world – until last year.

Hawaiian chefs will no doubt roll their eyes over the fact that poke is now a trending food, making its rounds on ­Instagram, but the rest of us are happy to belatedly hop on the bandwagon.

Poke restaurants started popping up across the US early last year and appeared in the ­United Kingdom in June. Now, you can get your very own poke bowl in Dubai as well.

Traditionally, poke is a dish of roughly cut raw fish – ­usually reef fish – mixed with salt, ­seaweed or roasted kukui (nuts from the kukui nut tree). But, as all cuisines do, poke has evolved.

Buzzworthy poke restaurants are now serving up raw fish – most often tuna and salmon – with a variety of mix-ins and sauces. The partners behind Poke Poke Dubai, 30-­something foodies Jeremiah Dupin and Justin Telles expect the dish to take off in Dubai.

“Poke is part of a transformative wave washing over the food industry,” Telles says. “Our generation is one of adaptability and we are revolutionising how we do things, like eating. We are crafting our own approach to food that accommodates our preference for a swift, casual, customisable lifestyle. It’s just part of the social evolution of our age, especially in major metropolitan areas such as Dubai.”

It is also a healthy alternative in a world of fast food.

“The variety and affordability of something wholesome and healthy will help Poke Poke stand out in Dubai,” says Matthew Schaeffer, Poke Poke’s head chef and operations manager. “I always struggle to find healthy [fast food]. This is something you could eat every day of the week. It’s healthy and it’s delicious. It’s one of these ideas where I thought, ‘Man, why didn’t ­anyone think of that before’? It’s so obvious.”

Schaeffer comes to Poke Poke after a year-long stint as executive chef at Bull & Roo, the company founded by restaurateurs Tom Arnel and Sergio Lopez.

He visited poke restaurants in three countries with Dupin and Telles before developing the menu for the new venture.

While Poke Poke offers a handful of signature bowls, Schaefer says the best way to eat poke is to design your own. To do that, guests pick a base – white sushi rice, mixed wild rice, quinoa, vegetables or mixed greens – then add a protein. In addition to raw fish (tuna and salmon), Poke Poke also offers cooked prawns, chicken, tofu and organic eggs to meet the ­demands of the local market. Dupin says this was an ­important aspect to get right.

“Poke is unlike any other food option in Dubai,” Dupin says. “It is commonly served as raw fish in a bowl with a select few other ingredients.

“What we’ve done is use that tradition to inspire a new movement that addresses the contemporary ­demands of our customer base in Dubai.”

Marinade options include flavoursome combinations such as Sriracha ponzu, truffle yuzu ponzu and wasabi shoyu.

There’s also a long list of mix-ins and toppings guests can add to their bowl, including edamame, mango, jalapeños, snow peas, sprouts, wakame, wasabi-­toasted coconut, seaweed salad, crispy shallots and many more.

Top it all off with a sauce – such as wasabi mayonnaise or toasted sesame kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) – and you have a one-of-a-kind poke bowl customised to your taste.

“We are honoured and proud to be the first poke-bowl restaurant in the UAE,” says Dupin. “We have done everything we can to preserve the cultural identity of poke and the tradition behind it. We take great care to ­identify what is historically known as poke and what is a modern interpretive modification to cater to our market. “Striking a balance between historical accuracy and contemporary demand is an art and we have put in a lot of time to get it right.”

• Poke Poke Dubai is on Jumeirah Beach Road, Umm Suqeim 2, opposite Eppco. Visit ­www.pokepoke.com Open daily from 11am to 11pm. Call 04 347 7222