Claude Mangaguit of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai won second place in the professional category for his poke-stuffed bao, above.

Poke tacos judged
best at isle fest

With $15,000 in prize money at stake and the reputation of Hawaii's state dish to uphold, the judge's role at the Aloha Festivals Poke Festival is a serious thing.

Fifty tasters put an hour into the task on Sunday and their instructions were specific: No talking, no nonverbal negative clues (if it tastes bad, don't scowl). Only judges are allowed in the room and no judges can leave the room until it is determined that everyone did the job correctly. Those who mess up are called to the front to fix their "discrepancies."

Carl Okuyama has been doing this for 12 out of 13 years, making him the event's senior judge. He began when the contest was held in a tent in Waimea, then followed it as it moved in 1995 into the air-conditioned comfort of a ballroom at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

Okuyama is the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Sure Save Super Markets, so it's not like he doesn't have better things to do than drive up from Hilo on a weekend, but he sticks with the task because he's a believer.

Judge Carl Okuyama tastes a smoked tako poke.

"The word poke is synonymous with Hawaii and it's with this kind of event that we can make that claim."

Don't try to tell him it's just raw fish.

It's not, anyway. The poke festival includes categories for poke made with tofu, seaweed, macadamia nuts, even cooked poke.

Okuyama has witnessed evolution and innovation, for example when ama ebi -- deep sea prawns -- became widely available. "They brought a new taste to the competition." (This year's winner in the nonprofessional category was a dish of prawns.)

This year, the judges divided up close to 60 entries in the various categories. This totaled 10 to 20 tastes apiece.

But Okuyama remembers when every judge had to taste more than 100 entries. It was hard, he said, but the good ones were always obvious. "After taste, after taste, after taste ... all of a sudden, wow! ... When you find something, it really stands out, so it's really easy to give a score of 5."

The Best of Show award and the top prize in the professional division ($2,000) went to Buster Faifai of the Hapuna Beach Hotel, for this taco dish made with ahi and salmon.

Seared Ahi Tacos

8 gyoza shells
2 cups vegetable oil
Micro greens, shredded mild cheddar cheese and sour cream, for garnish
» Ahi poke
1/2 pound raw ahi
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup minced ginger
1 tablespoon EACH chili powder, cumin and coriander
» Salmon Poke Salsa:
1/4 pound fresh salmon, cubed
1/4 cup EACH finely chopped tomatoes, green onion, red onion and green ogo
1 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 Hawaiian chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon EACH lime juice and vegetable oil

To make salsa: Combine all ingredients and chill.

To make ahi poke: Cut fish into logs. Combine soy sauce, ginger and spices. Pour over fish and marinate 15 minutes.

Heat skillet until smoking over high heat. Sear ahi logs on all 4 sides. Cool, then dice into small cubes. Set aside.

Deep-fry gyoza in vegetable oil, bending into a taco shape.

To assemble: Fill gyoza shells with ahi. Garnish with micro greens, cheese and sour cream. Top with salsa. Serves 4.

Margie Hanselman of Hilo won the $1,500 prize for first place, nonprofessional.

Firecracker Prawns

20 large prawns
2 pounds shrimp, minced
1 medium Maui onion, minced
1 can water chestnuts, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 container imitation crab
1 tablespoon white miso
4 stalks green onion, chopped
1 tablespoon macadamia nuts, finely chopped
» Dragon Sauce:
1 bottle sweet chili sauce
1 bottle garlic chili sauce
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 tablespoon inamona (roasted kukui nut)
1/2 cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup hot water

Combine sauce ingredients and refrigerate.

Remove meat from prawns and finely chop. Reserve shells. Mix all ingredients together and refill the shells with mixture. Broil 5 to 10 minutes, until bright red. When almost done, brush with melted butter.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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