If you’ve recently spent time scrolling through Seamless or gone hunting for a new lunchtime spot for you and your coworkers, you’ve likely noticed that restaurants advertising poke bowls have been popping left and right. It’s little surprise that this trendy food has developed a serious following—the fresh, customizable meals are straight-up delicious. But before it swept through your city and your favorite food app, where did the dish originate? And what do you need to know about putting together the best poke bowl ever?
“While there is no precise origin story, many agree that the beginnings of poke date back to pre-colonial times in Polynesia, a grouping of islands from Hawaii to New Zealand,” says Sarah Abadi, founder and owner of POKE IT, a Mexican-influenced poke eatery in San Diego. “Locals would take their fresh catch from fishing and season it with whatever was on hand to enjoy. It was then around the 1970s that poke, as we know it, began to rise in popularity, first found in Hawaiian home kitchens then transitioning into supermarkets. Soon after, the dish journeyed to the mainland.”
Wondering what the word poke actually means? (And by the way, it’s pronounced “po-kay.”) “The word ‘poke’ in itself means to slice, or cut crosswise into pieces,” says Abadi.
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The Traditional Recipe
For seafood lovers, the star ingredient of a poke bowl is the fish. But that’s not all that makes up the classic recipe. “Most traditional poke bowls contain skipjack tuna (known in Hawaii as Aku), mixed with Hawaiian salt (alaea salt), maui onions, seaweed, roasted kukui nut, lime, soy sauce, green onions and sesame oil,” says Kevin Hsu, co-founder of Pokeworks, which focuses on customizable poke dishes “However, ahi (yellowfin) tuna, salmon and other raw shellfish are being used more commonly.”
Poke Bowls..with a Twist
Though the go-to poke bowl recipe centers around fish, non-seafood lovers don’t have to miss out. New restaurants are swapping in other proteins like chicken or tofu instead of raw fish. And a number of establishments are adding flavors from other popular cuisines into the dish.
“Poke has been evolving from being an appetizer or side item to a feature item at several restaurants across mainland U.S.,” Hsu says. “New ingredients and flavors from Japanese, Korean, Thai…just to name a few, are being introduced into the poke bowl as well.”
And poke doesn’t have to be limited to bowls anymore, with poke burritos, tostadas, and tacos hitting menus, too, according to Abadi.
Bottom line? Poke bowls are a great canvas for an array of flavors, cuisines, and ingredients. “When ordering and creating your own poke bowls, poke tacos, and poke burritos, don’t be conservative,” says Abadi. “Do be creative, and play around with unique base/protein/topping combos that sound delicious to you!” Abadi recommends reaching for chopsticks if you’re eating a poke bowl and pair it with something delicious to drink. “Depending on the components of the dish, you can pair it with a sake, beer, or agua fresca (popular Mexican fruit waters),” she says.