Cioppino and bouillabaisse, bruschetta and pan con tomate, pancakes and crêpes. You might call them cross-cultural culinary cousins—two different cuisines’ take on a similar dish. And although one can be used as a reference point to help describe the other, it’s important to remember that some things are always “lost” in translation. Different key ingredients used, slightly different techniques implemented, alternative presentations, etc. It’s something I recently had to reconsider after claiming that poke is like a Hawaiian version of ceviche. Sure, there’s the big no-brainer likeness: both are made using diced, marinated raw fish. But do they have anything else in common? Let’s take a look and see if it really is a fair comparison.
Obviously, the two claim different regional roots. Poke (pronounced poh-keh) is native to Hawaii, the name translating to “to cut or slice” or “to section” in the local dialect. Ceviche, on the other hand, is indigenous to Latin America and the Caribbean. Although you can find variations throughout the regions, the dish is particularly popular in Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru (the latter even claims the dish to be a part of the country’s national heritage).
This, of course, impacts the ingredients and flavor profiles used in the dish. Poke has a distinctly Asian influence—the cubes of fish are traditionally marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil—whereas the fish in ceviche is typically dressed with citrus juice and seasoned with fresh herbs, pepper, onion, and sometimes tropical fruit as well. And that’s another thing: while both are considered raw fish dishes, the citric acid from the juices used in ceviche actually denatures the proteins in the fish and cooks it in a way. Because of this, it’s important to pay attention to timing when marinating the fish: Too little and you’ve basically got diced sashimi, too much you risk overcooking. Most sources say the sweet spot is between 10 and 15 minutes, maybe 20.
And exactly what kind of fish are we talking here about anyway? While you can find versions that feature salmon, octopus, and yellowfin tuna, poke is most commonly made using sushi-grade ahi tuna. (Of course, given that these are raw dishes, the quality and freshness of fish is paramount in both cases.) The range of seafood used in ceviche varies more widely. Fish like halibut, snapper, grouper, and sea bass are quite common, as well as calamari and shellfish like shrimp and scallops.
Last but not least, there’s also presentation to consider. Eaten as a small appetizer or quick snack, poke can be served on it’s own, often topped simply with sliced green onions. Frequently though, you’ll see it presented as a bowl on top of sushi rice and accompanied by a variety of garnishes like seaweed salad, sliced raw carrots and cucumber, avocado, and sesame seeds. Ceviche can be eaten on its own as well but is commonly served in a chilled bowl alongside plantain or tortilla chips, enjoyed almost like a dip, or on a fried corn tortilla as a tostada.
So in the end, while it looks like there’s more that separates than unites these two dishes, you can’t argue that they’re both equally delicious. Just check out the following recipes if you have any doubts.
Snapper Ceviche with Chiles and Herbs
One of the best things about ceviche is how truly little effort it requires to make. It’s as simple as: Prepare mise en place and combine. Aka the perfect low-stress, no-“cook” light appetizer that never fails to impress. This classic version relies especially on the brightness of fresh herbs and a combination of citrus juices to really pop. Get our Snapper Ceviche with Chiles and Herbs recipe.
Curried Calamari Ceviche with Mango and Avocado
If you’re still on the slightly squeamish side of the fence when it comes to eating raw seafood, this ceviche is for you. The calamari is quickly poached before being tossed with tangy-spicy-sweet combination of grapefruit and lime juices, curry powder, serrano chile, radish, and mango. Spooned into half of a pitted avocado, the edible bowl effect really makes it a showpiece starter for a summer feast. Get our Curried Calamari Ceviche with Mango and Avocado recipe.
Halibut Ceviche with Watermelon
Proving it can be so much more than just a classic summertime dessert, juicy watermelon adds cool freshness and mellow sweetness to balance the powerful punch of jalapeño, red onion, lime juice in this halibut ceviche. Get our Halibut Ceviche with Watermelon recipe.
Shrimp Ceviche Tostada
Nine times out of ten, ceviche recipes will call for serving the dish with a side of chips, usually tortilla or plantain. This variation semi-reinvents the wheel by presenting the ceviche as a tostada, serving the citrus-cured shrimp mixture on a crunchy corn shell. Get the recipe.
A combination of marinated ahi tuna, white rice, seasoned seaweed salad, creamy avocado, and slices of crunchy raw carrot and cucumber, it’s no wonder this classic Hawaiian dish is often described as a kind of deconstructed sushi. Get our Tuna Poke recipe. (And if spicy tuna is more your thing, try this interpretation that serves the poke in a lettuce cup.)
Kimchi Ahi Poke Bowl
Easy Salmon Poke Bowl with Brown Rice
It’s not like poke is exactly unhealthy, but this salmon variation goes the extra good-for-you mile by substituting the traditional sushi rice for brown rice. The heartier, nuttier grain plays nicely with the savory marinade and texture of the accompanying fresh veggies. Get our Easy Salmon Poke Bowl with Brown Rice recipe. (Of course, if you’re a fan of the grain switch-up concept, you should also check out this clever recipe that swaps quinoa for rice.)
Spicy Tofu Poke Bowls
This nontraditional, vegetarian take on the dish nixes the fish in favor of tofu that gets marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, chili garlic sauce, and ginger. Tossed with seaweed and green onion and served over white rice, the tofu has a soft, bouncy texture and clean flavor that makes it a smart substitution for the seafood averse. Get the recipe.