Poke—raw fish seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil—has long been a staple of Hawaiian cuisine, a popular go-to for barbecues, family get-togethers, or a simple lunch. Recently, the dish has exploded in popularity in the continental United States as well. We met food writer Martha Cheng ’01 for coffee to talk about this fresh approach to fish.
How did you create recipes for the book?
Most of the poke we eat in Hawaii is limited to five recipes. But my editor wanted something different, not 40 recipes of the same sauce with different proteins. So the last two-thirds of the book is more in the spirit of poke. I looked at the flavors we have here and tried to incorporate them into the recipes, like the one with harissa and preserved lemon—that’s just like how we eat crack seed [dehydrated and preserved fruit] in Hawaii. The chef at my first job here taught me how to make poke, and we got together and bounced ideas off each other, and that’s when I really started to get creative.
What compelled you to enter the food industry?
I was a computer science and English major at Wellesley. My second job after graduation was in the Peace Corps, where I discovered my connection to food. I was in St. Vincent, and it was hard to connect to a lot of people, but the instant you talked about food, it opened up this whole new world. That was sort of my lifeline to the community. So I thought I’d give the food industry a shot. Back in California, I started knocking on doors and calling, and finally Miette Patisserie in San Francisco accepted me into their internship program, so I started there.
How did you end up writing about poke in Hawaii?
I moved here with my (now ex) husband and started working at the Pineapple Room. I began writing for a food website and later for Honolulu Weekly and Honolulu magazine. I was interviewed for an article in Eater magazine about poke, and that’s how my editor found me for the cookbook. It’s funny; it feels like it’s all coming full circle, because my first big article for Honolulu magazine was about poke. And I used to visit Hawaii with my parents, and it was always the poke that I remembered. There wasn’t anything like it at the time on the mainland.
After working for the Wellesley College Alumnae Association for several years, Lee recently moved to Honolulu, where she is enjoying getting to know the local cuisine.