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Calling all Hawaii chefs to mix it up at Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest

February 6, 2012 - Carla Tracy

With $10,000 in cash and prizes, and chances for both amateur and professional chefs to win, the Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest on the Big Island will be a huge draw statewide.

Yes, Hawaii’s favorite pupu will get its due Sunday, March 18 at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa. But the deadline to enter is Feb. 28, so it’s best to practice your poke recipes now.

Poke (po-KEH) is the Hawaiian word for “slice.” The local-style pupu (appetizer) consists of marinated, fresh local fish that may be prepared raw, seared or cooked other ways.

The contest’s namesake, Sam Choy, is looking fantastic these days. A TV host, cookbook author and founding member of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, Choy put poke on the world’s culinary map. The award-winning restaurateur remembers the first poke contest in the early 1990s was held under a tent up in Kamuela and there were only a handful of entrants. “Today there are two dozen contests across the country.”

I remember that Sam asked me to be a judge over the years and I have gladly accepted a number of times. Another time, I got to the ballroom at the Hawaii Prince Hotel on the Big Island to be a “celebrity contestant,” and found out that I would have to put on a comedy routine. For some reason, no one told me this beforehand and I was mortified.

First up were Pamela Young of local TV’s “Mixed Plate” fame and her husband, Gary Sprinkle, a Honolulu newscaster. They did this really cute rap called Pake Poke.

“Pake,” for the unitiated is pigeon English or slang for “a frugal or cheap person, sometimes of Chinese heritage.” Young, who is Chinese, poked fun at herself with the routine.

“I was going to buy fresh ahi grade sashimi for the poke. But it was so soooo expensive,” she told the crowd. “So I ended up with marlin. It was frozen. So the price was mo’ bettah.” Gary Sprinkle chimed in, “pake.” And Young said, “poke.”

“Then I was going to make it special with Maui onions. But ho, choke the price!” she explained in pigeon English. Pake,” said Sprinkle. “Poke,” quipped Young.

You get the picture. They went on and on and it was hilarious. But I was getting nervous as I had no routine.

Then radio personality Boy Kanae (now deceased) got up on stage and brought the house down with his ridiculous toilet humor. I don’t even want to repeat it here as it was so risque. I can’t remember who his partner was, but he was equally hilarious.

After a couple more local “celebrity contestants” it was finally my turn. I still hadn’t thought through what I would say. All I could think of was that no one had told me I had to rehearse a routine.

So I just got up on stage and winged it. I told the spectators that filled the ballroom that I had brought raw elk meat from upcountry Maui and had made Vietnamese-style poke. They laughed uproariously. I fed off the crowd. I told them the ingredients, and they laughed at every one I mentioned.

Somehow, I pulled it off.

The event is now called the Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest and it has moved closer to Kona.

The contest encourages the creative use of seaweed, seeds, herbs, spices, nuts, marinades, tofu, fruit and vegetables for seasoning.

Poke contest judging starts 10 a.m. with an awards ceremony and tasting open to the public at 11:30 a.m. Admission to all activities is $3 at the door (keiki 12 and younger are free) and proceeds benefit the future culinary instruction facilities at Hawai‘i Community College-Palamanui. There will also be a marketplace with fresh fish, cooking demos and a presentation on sustainable aquaculture.

The rules and details of the contest are posted online on Facebook at Sam Choy’s Keauhou Poke Contest. Or you may download the contest rules and entry form at Keauhou Resort Website. You don’t have to be a comedian to enter. But you should know the basics of mixing up raw fish.


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Chef Sam Choy will mix it up at poke contest