Elevated Polynesian Food: Poisson Cru

polynesian food poisson cru recipe

polynesian food poisson cru recipe

Some of the dishes prepared in Hawaii today are adapted from Polynesian food favorites. A perfect example of this is Poisson Cru, also called ‘Ota “ika, which originated from Tahiti.

Poisson Cru is similar to ceviche––raw fish marinated with citrus juice. Except, with Poisson Cru, coconut milk is also added to the marinade. Other typical ingredients that are mixed in with the fish are ginger, cucumber, onion and tomato.

In this preparation I use lemon, grapefruit, lemon grass and makrut lime leaves, instead of straight lime juice to create more complexity and brightness. I also use mango ginger instead of common ginger to impart fruitiness rather than spiciness. For spice, I use a few dashes of Sriracha sauce.

For the fish I use Uku, also known as Grey Snapper. You can find Uku locally caught in Hawaii. It is a mild, flaky white fish. I salt the fish before marinating it, which helps tenderize it.

This recipe makes three appetizer size portions. Or, as we call them in Hawaii, pupus.

Poisson Cru

This dish can be made using any type of fish, so use whatever is fresh and local. The mango ginger can be omitted if you cannot find it. You can also substitute a squeeze of lime juice for the market lime leaves if necessary. *Use local and/or organic ingredients whenever available. 

Cuisine Hawaiian, Polynesian food
Keyword Polynesian food
Servings 3 servings


  • 1 cup Coconut milk unsweetened
  • 1 ea Makrut lime leaf fresh
  • 1 inch Lemongrass pounded
  • 1 tsp Mango ginger peeled and smashed
  • 10 oz Uku (Grey Snapper) large dice
  • 2 tsp Sea salt course
  • 1/2 cup Sweet onion sliced thin
  • 1 ea Lemon
  • 6 sprigs Cilantro roughly chopped
  • 1 sprig Basil stem removed, sliced
  • 1 ea Green onion sliced thin
  • 1/2 tsp Sriracha sauce
  • 1/4 ea Grapefruit segmented


  1. In a small pot, over medium-low heat, warm the coconut milk, makrut lime leaf, lemongrass and mango ginger until it is hot, making sure not to bring to a boil. Set aside to cool completely.

  2. Toss the diced fish with the sea salt and let sit in the refrigerator for 15 min. 

  3. Rinse the fish well, removing all salt. Remove excess water. 

  4. Toss the fish with the sweet onion and juice from a half of lemon. 

  5. Strain the steeped and cooled coconut milk over the fish. Discard the makrut lime leaf, lemongrass and ginger. 

  6. Give the fish a stir in the marinade, and let it sit refrigerated for 1-2 hours. 

  7. Fold the cilantro, basil, green onion, Sriracha and grapefruit segments into the fish mixture. Give it a taste. It made need another pinch of salt and/or another squeeze of lemon. 

  8. Served immediately, nice and cold. 



Traditional Hawaiian Lau Lau

Hawaiian lau lau
Hawaiian lau lau
Hawaiian lau lau

On an overcast day, at the top of a hill in Kaimuki, I went to my first Hawaiian lau lau party.

I met one of the hosts last year attending my first yoga retreat. I think the fact that food dominated most of our conversations gave her the indication that I would be a good candidate for her lau lau assembly line, because the next time she planned her annual party I was on the invite list. An invitation I was quite honored to receive.

In the weeks leading up to an event like this there is preparation that needs to be done on everyone’s part. We were asked to bring ti leaves, pork or fish and a breakfast item or side dish to contribute. Along with that, guests are encouraged to bring alcoholic beverages of their choice. I mean this is a party, first and foremost, after all.

The ingredients that go into the preparation of lau lau are very specific and somewhat time consuming, so our host asked that most of them were prepped before we arrived.

Ti leaves

First, you have to have ti leaves. But not just any ti leaves, they can’t be too small and they can’t be too big either.

Hawaiian lau lau
Ti leaves

They also have to be, what the Hawaiians call “de-boned.” You do this by placing the leaf, shiny side down, on a table and making a little nick where the stem first starts to protrude at the top of the leaf. Then you pick up the leaf placing your forefinger behind the leaf, where the back of the stem is, and your thumb in front of the leaf to secure the leaf in place. Then with your other hand you gently peel back the top of the leaf which pops the stem out.

You continue with this motion all the way down, until you have stripped the entire stem from the leaf, but have left the leaf completely still intact. When you reach the bottom of the stem, split the stem in two, all the way up to the base of the leaf. I have to admit, this takes a little finesse.

Here’s an instructional video on how to do this…..

Ti leaves can be found all over the island and are usually foraged in people’s backyards. You can also buy them at flower shops that make leis. These leaves are for wrapping the lau lau, as a vessel to steam them in, they are not edible.

Taro leaves (also called luau leaves)

These can be bought at Wongs in 20 lb bags for I think $38. You can also find them at Foodland or often times at the Farmers Market––Ma’o Farms will sometimes have them in Kaka’ako on Saturdays.

Taro leaves
Taro leaves

With scissors, snip off the stems and cut the stems into one inch pieces. You will end up with a giant pile of leaves and a large bowl of cut up stems. Wash and dry them well. A group of 6 or 8 of us did this at the party before we started wrapping lau lau. An important note about taro leaves, they must be cooked before eaten. That is unless, you like the sensation of eating broken glass.

Taro leaves
Snip taro stems off with scissors and cut into 1 inch pieces
Taro leaves
Once stems are trimmed, wash and dry leaves and stems.

Pork shoulder (also called pork butt)

Purchase boneless pork shoulder. Do not remove or discard any fat. The more fat the better in this dish. It is what keeps the lau lau nice and moist and adds flavor. Dice it into one inch cubes.

Diced pork shoulder
Diced pork shoulder


You need to select fish that has a high oil content. Like the pork, the fattiness of the fish is what makes the lau lau rich and succulent. Although neither local, salmon or black cod (which is actually sable fish, but often called butterfish in Hawaii) are commonly used. We used both.

The salmon needs to be scaled, but you can leave the skin on and the bones in, since they are both delicate and will melt away in the cooking process.

For the black cod, however, the skin and bones should be removed and discarded.

Once your fish has been cleaned, dice it into 1 inch pieces.

Diced fish
Diced fish

Some recipes call for salting the fish ahead of time. We skipped this step and it came out just fine.


You will want to use a course sea salt for this dish, preferably Hawaiian Alaea salt, an unrefined local sea salt that has been mixed with red alae volcanic clay. You can find this on Amazon or in select markets on island (I’ve seen it at Foodland Farms).

I was told that “you cannot use too much salt” in this dish, so have more than you think you will need on hand.

Kiawe wood

Known on the mainland as mesquite, kiawe lends a nice smoky flavor and aroma to the lau lau when steaming it over an open fire.

This can be sourced by foraging around the island or from a local firewood business like Kiawe Hawaii.

Kiawe wood
Kiawe wood


You will need long prep tables, scissors, large steamer pots, cinder blocks (I’ll get to those in a minute), heavy heat-proof gloves and a refrigerator full of beer (to keep you entertained while the lau lau cooks). Tables and industrial sized pots can be purchased at a restaurant supply store like Chef Zone.

Stock pot with steamer insert
Stock pot with steamer insert
Steamer for lau lau
Heavy bottomed rondeau (or brazier) pot with steamer baskets (not pictured)

The big day

People started trickling into our host’s home around 8am. Coffee was offered, name tags were made, the breakfast buffet started coming together and mimosas were poured.

hawaiian lau lau

Around 9am my friend’s husband who co-hosts the party, Lau Lau Luna (luna is Hawaiian for boss), made a lovely toast to the occasion, honoring loved ones that were no longer with us and telling us the story of how he started this annual tradition over twenty years ago.

Breakfast buffet

After diving into a spread of fresh fruit harvested from the backyard, home-made pastries, banana bread, frittatas and quiches, we filed out into the garage to start wrapping lau lau.

The table of ingredients was set up assembly line style, but the process in which we prepared each lau lau was not. Each person was responsible for seeing their lau lau all the way through, beginning to end.

lau lau prep
the lau lau prep station

How to build a lau lau

The first thing you do is start with a pile of taro leaves stacked up in one hand. The number of leaves will depend on how big they are. You will want to fan them out and layer them, so that they make a spiral and create a base big enough to enclose a large handful of pork and fish.

step 1
Step 1 – Stack several taro leaves in one hand

Next you go down the line, adding first about 4 or 5 pieces of pork (again, depending on the size), 1-2 pieces of fish, a small handful of taro stems and a liberal sprinkling of sea salt.

Step 2
Step 2 – Add the pork
Step 3
Step 3 – Add fish, taro stems and salt

Finally, you wrap the whole bundle in ti leaves. You will need two leaves for this. Apparently, there are a couple of different ways you can do this, but here is how we wrapped ours….

Step 4
Step 4 – Wrap and tie the bundle in two ti leaves

First, lay one ti leaf on the table and place your bundle on top of the leaf, at the very top. Roll the bundle up in the leaf until you get almost to the bottom and stop. Lay a second ti leaf on the table, place the bundle on top turning it, so that the open ends are facing the length of the second ti leaf, roll it up until you get almost to the bottom of the leaf and stop. Take the split stems from the first leaf that are now sticking out, and tie a double knot around the pouch.

tying lau lau
tying lau lau

Secure it again, by then tying it with the split stems from the second leaf.

lau lau
Boss lady (a.k.a. Luna lady)

lau lau

lau lau

Here is a demo, from the Lau Lau Luna, on how to do this…

While the majority of the party is in the garage wrapping lau lau, two fires were being built in the yard to create two make-shift wood burning stoves, made out of cinder blocks and grill grates.

Fire for lau lau
Fires are built for the wood burning stoves while the lau lau are being prepped.

hawaiian lau lau

hawaiian lau lau
The steamer pots are filled approximately 4 inches high with water and brought to a boil.

When the lau lau were ready, we brought them out to the yard in large coolers and laundry baskets.

lau lau ready to be steamed
lau lau ready to be steamed

Lau Lau Luna and his sous chef, Luna Jr. were in charge of the cooking process. (They wore aprons with their titles sewn into them so we knew who was who.)

Boss man
Boss man (a.k.a. Lau Lau Luna)
Luna Jr.
…and his sous chef, Luna Jr.

Junior carefully stacked each lau lau tightly into two industrial sized pots with steamer baskets counting each one as he went. The pots needed to come to a full boil before the lau lau could be added. Once in, the pots were covered with lids and then weighed down with cinder blocks to keep steam from escaping. A timer was then set for exactly 3 ½ hours.

cooking lau lau
Luna Jr. stacks the lau lau tightly into the steamer pots

lau lau

hawaiian lau lau

Now that the lau lau was on and most of the work was complete we had time to hang out,  talk story (as the Hawaiians say) and drink beer. Yay!

hawaiian lau lau

hawaiian lau lau

As the day went on, more side dishes were delivered and prepared. By the time the 3 ½ hours was up we had ourselves a proper luau buffet, complete with chicken long rice, poke, potato-mac salad, poi, fried rice and musubi, along with some other tasty non-traditional salads and a couple of desserts.

It almost brought tears to my eyes when Lau Lau Luna offered me one of the first lau lau to come out of the pot. I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dove in, tasting the first bite unadulterated before adding a splash of Hawaiian chile water on top. It was heavenly.

lau lau

lau lau

lau lau

The taro leaves cooked down and had a reminiscent flavor and texture of canned spinach, that reminded me of my childhood. The fatty pork and fish were tender, juicy and unctuous.

The flavor combination is addictive, and that chile water cuts the fattiness just enough to completely balance them out. It was like snuggling up with a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold day. Something we don’t do often in Hawaii,  but you get the idea.

proper luau plate
From left to right – Chinese long rice, poi, potato-mac salad, marlin poke, coleslaw and lau lau.

At the end of the event styrofoam boxes were spread out and guests were loaded up with the fruits of their labor to bring home with them. Photos were posted on Instagram and high fives, kisses on the cheek and hugs were given all around.

lau lau to-go
At the end of the day lau lau was packed up to-go for all guests

I was honored and humbled to not only have been so lucky enough to enjoy this feast, but to be accepted into the gathering and appreciated for my efforts as well. It was an experience of true aloha that I will always cherish.

Mahalo nui loa to everyone that was involved.

Especially our hosts, Lau Lau Luna and Luna lady…

Traditional Hawaiian Lau Lau

We made over 200 lau lau at our party. As I don't expect everyone will need that sort of volume I have scaled the recipe down to a more moderate size for a group of a dozen or so people. 

Cuisine Hawaiian
Servings 55 each


  • 110 each Ti leaves de-boned
  • 5 lbs Taro leaves Stems removed, cut into 1 inch pieces and reserved
  • 1 cup Hawaiian Alaea sea salt course
  • 10 lbs Pork shoulder boneless, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 4 lbs Salmon and/or black cod diced into 1 inch pieces
  • Kiawe wood Chopped to build a fire


See method described above.







Seared Sardines with Potatoes and Celery-Herb Salad

Nowhere do I hear the word sustainability mentioned more often than when it comes to the topic of seafood. It is no secret that we are depleting our ocean. According to Paul Greenberg in his TED talk, The four fish we’re overeating and what to eat instead,  the majority of Americans stick to these four fish: tuna, salmon, cod and shrimp. The overfishing of these fish put them  on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch as ones to avoid yet we eat them anyway. Why? Because most Americans think fish is “gross”.

Unless I am talking to fellow chefs or foodies I usually get a scrunched up face of disgust looking back at me when I  mention the word sardines.

Sardines are one of my favorite fish. They have an incredible flavor, are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are, for most of the year, sustainable to fish.

There’s a catch with sardines however. They can be hard to find, they have a very short shelf life and (here’s the part where you scrunch your face up) you have to rip their guts out. To me that is part of the adventure of eating sardines though! It’s a special occasion when I serve up a plate of sardines for Spencer and I at home. It means, I scored and found some Monterey Bay sardines today, I have the time to prepare them and we are getting a treat tonight!

Below is my favorite preparation for sardines. You may never make this but my hope is that maybe the next time you see sardines on a menu it inspires you to order them or at the very least stop all that nose scrunching.

If you are interested in learning more about which fish are the most sustainable to be eating right now check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Guide and be a part of the solution, not the problem.

Chef tip: Look for wild Pacific Sardines from the U.S. or Canada. Cook them within the first 2 days you buy them.

Seared Sardines with Potatoes and Celery-Herb Salad

Use organic ingredients whenever possible

Servings 2


  • 1 each Fingerling potato sliced into coins
  • 1 rib Celery sliced
  • 4 sprigs Parsley leaves only
  • 2 sprigs Dill chopped
  • 1/2 a Lemon
  • EVOO
  • Sea Salt & fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 each Fresh Sardines scaled, gutted, head and tail removed - Ask your fishmonger to do this for you or watch the how-to video linked in the recipe notes below
  • Aleppo pepper optional
  • Cast iron skillet or other heavy bottom pan


  1. Place the sliced fingerling potatoes in a small pot, cover with cold water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender about 10 minutes or so. Strain, toss the potatoes in EVOO and set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the celery, parsley leaves, dill, a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of EVOO and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  3. Get a cast iron pan hot over high heat.
  4. Pat the prepared sardines on each side with a paper towel so that they are dry.
  5. Sprinkle a light layer of salt evenly in the bottom of the hot cast iron pan.
    Cast iron pan
  6. Place the sardines skin side down in the pan atop the salt (do not add any oil to the pan).
  7. While the sardines are searing on the skin side, season the flesh side with salt and pepper.
  8. After about 30 seconds flip the sardines over with a fish spatula and sear them on the other side about 30 seconds. You are looking for crispy golden brown skin and just barely cooked fish.
  9. Transfer the sardines to a paper towel with a fish spatula.
  10. Divide the fingerling potato coins on the bottom of two serving plates.
  11. Place two sardines on each plate over the potatoes.
  12. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over each sardine and top with the celery-herb salad.
  13. Sprinkle aleppo pepper evenly over each dish if desired for a subtle spicy smoky flavor.
  14. Enjoy with a glass of crisp, cold white wine!

Recipe Notes

Want to learn how to fillet a sardine? Watch this awesome how-to video!

Need Aleppo Pepper? Try this