What is a poke bowl?
A poke bowl (original spelling ‘poke bowl’, pronounced “poh-KAY bowl”) is a Hawaiian dish that has its roots deeply rooted in Japanese cuisine. “Poke” means “cut into pieces” and the name refers to the slices or cubes of raw fish that are served in a bowl along with rice, dressing, vegetables and seasonings.
The poke dish comes from Hawaiian cuisine. At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a large group of Japanese emigrated to the island to work on sugar and pineapple plantations. So many Japanese people came to Hawaii that in the 1920s more than 40% of the population was Japanese (now estimated at around 17%). No wonder Japanese eating habits have become part of Hawaiian cuisine! Poke is a good example of this.
Both the original Hawaiian people and Japanese immigrants loved raw fish and so the new dish appeared on the local menus in the 1970s. Traditionally, poke was very simple: cubes of raw ahi, a local type of tuna, were served with some Hawaiian salt, minced seaweed and roasted, finely ground kukui (kemirinoten); without rice, without extras. Poke is the somewhat messy, Hawaiian version of the strict, pure Japanese sashimi.
Does this sound a bit sober compared to the colourful, well-stocked dishes that you see on the table all over the world? That’s right because, since that first version, quite a few special varieties have appeared on Hawaii and far beyond. The poke dish has become inextricably linked with the bowl in which it is served. This goes without saying for Japanese and Hawaiians – they have more bowls than plates in their cupboards.
The modern Poke bowl is a dish that can be adjusted to every taste and preference. In fact, the cubes of fish are the only requirement – they can be raw, marinated or baked. Anything goes, although most versions remain local and international, close to their Japanese-Hawaiian roots.
Did you know...
In Hawaii, you can find this dish everywhere, from small street stalls to fine dining restaurants and even at petrol stations. Supermarkets often have their own poke counter, where you can have your bowl made to your own taste.
How to make a pokebowl
A poke bowl consists of a number of layers.
1 First, there is the base layer, the rice. This is usually fragrant jasmine rice or sushi rice (shari), although all kinds of variations are possible, from bamboo rice to even quinoa or soba noodles. The rice needs to be a warm temperature, as a counterpart to the ice-cold fresh fish.
2 Fish is the star of the pokebowl and it must be sushi quality. Yellowfin tuna is the most commonly used, but salmon, squid and snapper are also possible. The fish fillets are cut lengthwise and then cut into strips or cubes. If you don’t like raw fish, look for a bowl with tofu or cooked crab meat.
3 A salty dressing is indispensable and must be able to stand its ground beside the (often oily) fish. Shoyu (soy sauce) is a classic, but dressings based on ponzu and black bean paste also do well in the pokébowl.
4 Finally, the ‘flavour makers’ follow which, in addition to taste, also bring size, texture, vitamins, kernel and/or refinement. This is where the poke bowl is transformed into an extremely personal meal. Fresh vegetables are popular, for example, avocado, leafy vegetables, edamame and/or bean sprouts. Consider additions such as spring onions, crumbled wasabino nuts, togarashi (a Japanese chilli pepper mixture) and slices of pickled ginger.
It may reduce the health factor of this dish, but a poke bowl tastes great with a cold beer.
How to eat
Eat your pokebowl when it is as fresh as possible, preferably immediately after you have bought or made it.
The pokebowl is sometimes compared to deconstructed sushi and the dish does look a bit like that. If you fancy the same flavours but bite-sized bites that you can put with your chopsticks in your mouth, then take a portion of sushi. The most basic version of poke is very much like sashimi.