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What is a Hawaiian poke bowl? How to make a poke bowl

This versatile dish can be made with many different types of fish or even vegan proteins.
Pok? bowl ingredients flat lay
A bunch of fresh ingredients for a sushi bowl with avocado, salmon, cucumber, seaweed, radish, and seeds.Bernine / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

In recent years, poke bowls have become more popular across many cities on the United States mainland, but Hawaiians have been enjoying this colorful and flavorful delicacy since the 1800s. Today, there are thousands of restaurants around the world specializing in poke bowls.

Since the ingredients in a modern poke bowl can vary widely, the nutrition content can vary as well. Here's what culinary experts and a nutritionist have to say about the best way to enjoy a poke bowl.

A new take on traditional poke bowls at Honolulu Coffee and Comfort Food
Over the years poke bowls have become more diversified. Some don't even feature fresh fish!Honolulu Coffee and Comfort Food

A traditional poke (pronounced poh-KAY) bowl consists of white rice topped with raw fish that's been marinated in a blend of sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions and other spices.

"The fish is the star of this dish, and everything else acts like the chorus line," Alana Kysar, a Hawaii native and the author of the cookbook "Aloha Kitchen."

Poke means "chunk" or "slice" in Hawaiian. Poke bowls started becoming widely consumed during the late 19th century when Japanese workers in Hawaii introduced "donburi," a traditional Japanese dish made with raw fish and rice, to the islands. Traditionally, poke is made with ahi tuna, but can also be made with marinated salmon, cooked shrimp or even tofu for a vegan option.

Until the 1970s, it was very difficult to find a poke bowl outside of Hawaii. With the popularization of sushi and the rise in global fish exports, now they're sold all over the world. In 2016, The New York Times profiled the rise of poke bowl shops and many more seafood restaurants continued to add a version of the dish to their menus.

However, many traditionalists say mainland poke just isn't the same. The biggest difference between a poke bowl in Hawaii and a poke bowl served elsewhere is the number of ingredients.

"I personally do not order poke in the mainland because it seems more of a process to order and don't think that it should be so customized," said MiJin Kang Toride, chef de cuisine at Lineage Maui. Kang Toride told TODAY she doesn't believe most establishments on the mainland are "doing justice" to the poke served on the islands because, in the traditional dish, the fresh ingredients really speak for themselves.

What are the ingredients in a poke bowl?

Man eating poke bowls with ponzu dressing
Man eating poke bowls with salmon, avocado, vegetables, sprouts and ponzu dressing on marble backgroundluchezar / Getty Images stock

Since you're dealing with raw fish, freshness and quality of ingredients are incredibly important.

First, you want the freshest fish possible. "If you’re sourcing from your local fish market, ask for sashimi or sushi-grade cuts," said Kysar.

Traditional poke marinade includes a mixture of shoyu soy sauce, sesame oil, Maui (or yellow) onion, some type of spice (like red pepper flakes or "gochugaru," Korean chili pepper), seaweed and ginger. Recipes vary, but most call for marinating the fish for at least two hours to allow the flavors to absurd.

Steamed white rice is a traditional poke bowl base, but today carb-conscious eaters are opting for lettuce or zoodles.

How do you make a poke bowl?

To make a poke bowl, first cut the fish into cubes and mix with your desired marinade. Let your fish marinate in in the fridge for at least 15 minutes: The longer it marinates, the more flavor it will have.

While the fish marinates, chop up your toppings and start steaming your rice. The right temperature is key in perfecting this dish when it's time to serve it. Kysar aims for ice cold fish served atop a bed of piping hot steamed rice. When the rice is ready, scoop a single serving into a bowl and top with your fish.

Additional toppings may added to the base and fish, including fruit, freshly chopped herbs and different types of sauces. In Hawaii, traditional poke bowls also include "inamona," or roasted candlenuts, said Kysar. Since it's hard to find those on the mainland, she substitutes finely chopped macadamia nuts.

Since the fish is raw, poke bowls should be consumed right away.

What are popular poke bowl variations?

assorted poke bowls
An assortment of poke bowls on the menu at Honolulu Coffee and Comfort Food in Porto, Portugal.Honolulu Coffee and Comfort Food

While the traditional poke bowl has few ingredients because the emphasis should be on the flavor of the fish, poke bowls these days are bursting with a variety of colors, textures and even sounds — recently, a California restaurant started serving poke bowls with Pop Rocks.

Many shops also offer a variety of mayo based sauces that add a unique creaminess to the dish.

In vegetarian poke bowls, edamame, beans or tofu are used. Popular additions now include avocado, pickled ginger, cucumber, mango and a whole "bevy of toppings" which Kysar said are not typical. While she understands the appeal of new ingredients, she feels strongly about preserving the poke bowl's integrity and sticking to traditional recipes for maximum enjoyment.

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How many calories are in a poke bowl?

"Poke bowls can range from 350 to 750 calories," Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, told TODAY. The calorie count largely depends on the type and amount of fat used, especially in mayo-based sauces, so it's important to be conscious of exactly what's going into that bowl.

However, Taub-Dix likes poke bowls because they bring a variety of nutrients into one filling dish.

"They're a fun way to get lots of vitamins and minerals from colorful fruits and veggies, satiating protein from meat, fish, beans or tofu and healthy fats from avocado and oils," she explained, adding that pickled toppings can also promote gut health.

If you're looking to make a poke bowl that's lower in carbs and more nutrient dense, Taub-Dix advised giving more of the real estate in your bowl to vegetables instead of starchy carbs, and to choose brown rice instead of white rice.