Everything you ever wanted to know about poke

If you haven't already noticed, poke has basically conquered all your social media feeds for the past couple of years. These tasty, on-trend, and Insta-ready rice bowls topped with fresh fish and flavorful garnishes are made for modern day social media stardom. Textural and techni-colored with a concept imported from Hawaii, they can be enjoyed in myriad incarnations and are always camera-ready. Even though poke is a relative newcomer to the social scene and the wider culinary landscape, the island specialty has been a thing in its native Hawaii for decades. So, if you haven't tried poke, there's no time better than the present.

Um, what is poke anyway?

Poke has become increasingly popular in the past few years, spawning tons of spots around the country, outside of Hawaii, where you can order the dish. The craze has even gotten mainstream coverage from the likes of The New York Times. Pronounced "poh-kay," the word literally means "to cut" in Hawaiian, which is apt when you consider that the main component of this trendier than ever dish consists of cubed raw fish.

Traditionally made with tuna, this delightfully fresh and flavorful specialty now features any variety of seafood—from classic ahi (made with yellowfin tuna) to salmon and octopus. Often served with rice alongside for heartiness, poke is garnished with a plethora of textural, colorful, and deeply flavorful ingredients: scallions, furikake, seasoned seaweed, chili sauce, Japanese mayo, miso, you name it. Some poke joints even offer vegetarian or cooked versions for those who feel uneasy about consuming raw fish.

Why poke, why now?

Sure, poke is tasty, but how can we account for the insane fashionability of this seafood salad as of late? Well, I'm a firm believer in the food lover's general affinity towards remixing, reconstructing, and deconstructing already favored dishes. If you think of poke bowls as your favorite sushi rolls and sashimi reincarnated, you can easily recognize poke's broad appeal.

In addition to containing recognizable ingredient elements, poke is a dream come true because it's so infinitely adaptable. Oh, you're on a health kick? Use spiraled veggie noodles for the base instead of rice. Want a meal that's rich and indulgent? Think generous dollops of spicy Japanese kewpie mayo. Whether you decide to make a simple bowl that speaks to your minimalist self, go crazy with the garnishes, or opt for something in between, poke gives you plenty of room to experiment, play, and make it your own.

Evolution of poke

While poke originated in people's homes in Hawaii in the 1970s, it is now sold in supermarkets, served at restaurants, peddled on the beach and roadside, and enjoyed everywhere and in every way imaginable. In short, the once local dish has evolved significantly over the past several decades. The concept of using leftover fish by cutting it up and mixing it with whatever ingredients are on hand is one that resonates because it leaves much room for interpretation.

According to a feature in Honolulu magazine, just as the abundance of inexpensive beef gave rise to the ubiquitous hamburger, so the availability of affordable fish in Hawaii fueled the poke growth. Even though poke is a Hawaiian invention broadly speaking, within that large category, there are wide-ranging variations among different ethnic groups and how they prepare the dish.

Build your own poke bowl just the way you like it

So you want to make your own poke at home? Totally doable! The key to building a great poke bowl is getting in all the main components, balancing a variety of flavors and textures, and using your own highly expert palate to guide you. As the history of poke shows, there is no one way to assemble poke, as this special dish of marinated fish can be what you want it to be. Don't be afraid to play with different ingredients and spices to arrive your perfect poke bowl.

Base

Start your poke adventures with the base of the dish. While rice is the go-to choice—whether it be brown, jasmine, or white sushi rice—your poke bed can certainly comprise of an ingredient other than rice. The poke base can also consist of a bunch of leafy greens you adore or your favorite type of cooked noodles. Consider what your other ingredients will be and how hearty you want the dish to be as a couple of ways to help you decide what you want to use for the base.

Protein

Next, choose your poke protein. Poke's main attraction, of course, is usually high-quality, sushi-grade or sashimi-grade raw fish. Sure, raw ahi tuna may be traditional, but that doesn't mean you can't deviate from yellowfin. Feel free to use another type of fish like salmon and if you can't get your hands of top-notch seafood in your area, you might want to go the way of cooked proteins like chicken, beef, or shrimp. Tofu works, also, for a more vegetarian-friendly take on poke.

Dressing

Once you have your protein situation worked out, you get to decide what kind of dressing you'd like to use, keeping in mind that firmer proteins can withstand bolder dressings, whereas more delicate varieties of fish fare better with lighter dressings that won't overpower their natural flavors. If you're not sure where to start, consider trying shoyu, gochujang, ponzu, or a spicy bean paste. Maybe you want to combine more than one of those options… anything's possible.

Garnishes

The next step is a super fun one: Add all the toppings your heart desires. With garnishes, you're always striving for textural complexity as well as looking for flavors that give yummy depth to your poke while, complementing each other just so. The sky's the limit. You can add fruits and veggies like bright citrus segments, creamy avocado slices, snappy edamame, and crispy sprouts. Nuts, seeds, and spices lend tons of zest to a too-plain bowl of poke, too. Think sesame seeds, shichimi togarashi, or toasted peanuts as starting points and go from there. Have fun with taste and see where you can add pops of color.

Spices

If you want your poke to carry some heat, which I always favor, throw in some spicy elements. Whether you go with wasabi, fresh chiles like jalapenos or serranos, simple dried crushed red pepper, or complex furikake, even the tiniest amount can add that perfect spicy quality to enhances the entire dish. Mix the some of the spices to get your own special blend if you feel so inclined.

Miscellaneous toppings

Other extras that can bring that oomph factor to your poke? I love a heap of seasoned seaweed on top of mine, but you can also add thinly sliced scallion, crispy pan-fried shallot, or something pickled like shredded cabbage or even eggs for a bit of punchy acidity.

A note if using raw fish….

While you can easily find tuna and salmon at the supermarket, encountering so-called sushi-grade fish is a bit more difficult to determine. If you plan to use raw fish in your poke, you would be best advised to shop for the highest quality fish available at a reputable local market. If you don't live in Hawaii where premium fish is readily available, find a fishmonger you trust and feel free to ask where the fish came from. Making your own poke is fun and striving for authenticity is admirable, but you want to make sure not to get sick from consuming bad fish.

Some poke recipes to get you started

This traditional and well-tested recipe from Serious Eats makes an impressively flavorful bowl of poke you should most certainly photograph and post on your social media platforms ad nauseum.

If you want to skip the fish, opt for this clever recipe from Vegetarian Times. Portobello mushrooms are the veggie star but the layers of flavors are all still there.

This recipe from Life Made Sweeter results in one of the most beautiful poke bowls I've ever laid eyes on. Made with salmon and bright veggies, it truly is a techni-colored masterpiece.

Make tofu the main attraction of poke when you whip up this vegetarian-friendly recipe from Tasty Time. Instead of fish, tofu is lovingly marinated in soy sauce and garnished with seaweed, sesame seeds, and chile flakes.

If you haven't already tried constructing your own poke bowl, you're in for loads of good times. As long as you seek out the freshest, best ingredients you can get your hands on, I have no doubt that your creation will be nothing short of a masterpiece. Enjoy!