If you’re tuned in to the wellness world, you might have noticed the buzz around poke bowls. This colorful and delicious dish has been seen at some of the trendiest restaurants, and thanks to the popularity of bowl nutrition (think acai bowls, macrobowls, and ramen) it looks like poke bowls are here to stay.
So what is poke? Does it have any health benefits?
Poke (rhymes with “okay,”) is a traditional Hawaiian dish that’s similar to a ceviche or an undone sushi roll. The word “poke” is a Hawaiian word that means “to cut crosswise into pieces,” and originally referred to the cubed shape of the fish. Today, the word “poke” refers to the dish itself, which contains raw fish that’s typically marinated in a sauce (the most common sauce combinations are sesame oil and soy sauce, or sometimes spicy garlic or ginger). The marinated fish is served in a bowl on a bed of sushi rice, usually with toppings like vegetables, seaweed, limu (a vitamin-rich algae), and sesame seeds or furikake (a Japanese seasoning).
While traditional poke bowls are still served in Hawaii, variations on the dish have been popping up from California to New York, with chefs coming up with new and exciting ways to customize their poke.
Health Benefits of Poke
While most poke isn’t unhealthy, the health benefits of poke depend almost entirely on what you decide to put in it. One of the best things about poke bowls is their ability to be customized. You can use the traditional sushi rice, but many people get creative and use brown rice, quinoa, or zoodles (zucchini noodles) as a base, and top with fresh veggies. With fall approaching, try incorporating seasonal vegetables for a colorful and healthy bowl.
The real star of the poke bowl is the fresh fresh. Fish has a number of important nutrients, including essential fatty acids like omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. These fatty acids support cardiovascular health, and may support healthy cholesterol levels already in the normal range. Most traditional poke is made from ahi (often yellowfin tuna) or kimchee tako (octopus), but you can also choose salmon, which sometimes has lower mercury levels than other fish.
On average, poke is naturally low in calories, with 5 oz. of ahi poke with shoyu (soy sauce) boasting only 104 calories. However, it contains an average of 21 grams of protein. Since protein is critical to maintaining muscle health and works to balance hormones, eating poke is a great (and delicious) way to meet your daily protein needs.
Making Poke at Home
Although the idea of making a raw fish-based dish may make you nervous, it’s all about freshness. Talk to your local fishmonger, who can help you choose the best and freshest fish. If you want to make sure the fish you’re eating comes from a sustainable source, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. This will let you know which fish are caught or farmed in ways that don’t harm the environment. Typically, wild caught fish will be best, since frozen and farmed fish can sometimes contain more contaminants from being overcrowded.
When choosing your fish, consider three criteria: smell, color, and texture. Fresh fish should never smell overly fishy; instead, it should be nearly odorless with only a light fish smell. Additionally, the color should be vibrant (for example, fresh ahi should be a vibrant scarlet, rather than pale pink), and the texture should be firm to the touch. After purchasing, you should eat your fish as soon as you can to get the most from its freshness and flavor.
Part of the key to great poke is presentation. When crafting your bowl, think about how colors and textures work together. For example, the texture of ahi blends well with a softer vegetable like avocado, and adding colors like radishes, carrots, or scallions brightens up your poke. When serving, create a mound of poke over your rice (think pyramid-shaped). Varying the height helps the dish to look more appetizing, and also makes it easier to eat in your bowl.
In addition to your fish and vegetables, poke is all about the seasoning. You can choose a savory soy sauce, or make your own marinade with sesame oil, ginger, rice vinegar, and garlic. You can get a great all-natural sesame oil here.
If you want to make poke at home, but aren’t sure where to start, we’ve rounded up a few delicious options to try. Whether you opt for ahi, or would rather try salmon (or even watermelon), check out these recipes!
Ahi Poke Bowls with Pineapple and Avocado
A great take on the traditional poke bowl, this recipe uses sweet pineapple and cool avocado to balance the texture of the ahi. Topping this recipe with sesame seeds and thin-sliced scallions adds extra flavor! (Image and recipe via How Sweet It Is)
Shoyu Ahi Poke Quinoa Bowl
This quinoa bowl recipe is perfect for those who prefer a non-rice base for their poke. Crispy onions and edamame give an added dimension to this “mainland poke.” (Image and recipe via i am a food blog)
Salmon and Avocado Poke Bowl
This simple yet delicious poke recipe uses salmon instead of ahi, and the sweet soy marinade gives an Asian-inspired twist. (Image and recipe via Just Putzing Around the Kitchen)
Watermelon Poke Bowls
This recipe may seem a little out there, but it’s a surprisingly delightful take on the classic poke bowl. Our favorite part is the macadamia nuts— it’s a fun nod to poke’s roots (plus they’re delicious for snacking!). You can get the macadamia nuts here. (Image and recipe via Love and Lemons).
Have you tried poke? Share your favorite places for poke and recipes in the comments!