In Hawaiian, "poke" simply means "to cut."
It also refers to an appetizer-size portion of chunks of raw fish ubiquitous on the islands of Hawaii. As the dish becomes more popular on trendy cafe menus around the country, we are getting a taste of it in Tampa Bay. Restaurants like Poke Cafe, which opened in Dunedin in 2016, and Poke Rose, a new concept slated to open in Tampa in the coming weeks, make poke the main event.
Since long before it became a trend on the mainland, poke (pronounced POH-keh) has been a staple in Hawaii. Sold in gas stations and by street vendors, almost like hot dogs, poke is a grab-and-go option that you can get everywhere, said Ken Gulley, who owns Poke Cafe.
In Hawaii, Gulley said, "someone will always bring poke" to luaus and cookouts, like macaroni or potato salad. It wasn't until it started trending in California, then migrated over to the East Coast, that it became known as a novelty, he said.
Gulley said that when he opened last year, Poke Cafe was Florida's first restaurant specializing in the Hawaiian appetizer.
You can find poke served a number of ways, including with chicken or tofu and various fruits, like mango or pineapple, and vegetables, like avocado or cucumber. Because of the heavy influence of Japanese culture in Hawaiian cuisine, poke dishes often contain seasonings like scallions and red pepper flakes, and sauces like soy sauce and sesame oil.
If you're working with the standard raw fish, Gulley emphasized the importance of marinating the fish in sauces and seasonings before serving it. Otherwise, it's no different than dipping sashimi in soy sauce.
In Hawaii, this traditional poke is usually served by itself, though you can request a side of rice to go along with the fish. Elsewhere, poke is more commonly served on top of rice or microgreens, or even quinoa. At Poke Cafe, poke is served in bowls, burritos, tacos and, as is traditional, by the pound.
"You can really do whatever you want," said chef Jason Cline, who is at the helm of Poke Rose. Cline, formerly the executive chef of the Birch & Vine in St. Petersburg, is putting poke front and center as part of his chef-driven, fast-casual concept that's taking shape in Tampa's new Hall on Franklin food hall.
At Poke Rose, bowls will be tossed to order, though they will come from a menu rather than a create-your-own style, as is popular at Poke Cafe.
Poke Rose will also make its own tofu, hemp sprouts and sauces for the bowls, Cline said. (He has plans to open more Poke Rose locations across the bay area, currently looking into additional space in Pinellas County.)
While poke has been around for a while on restaurant appetizer menus, both Cline and Gulley said there haven't been many shops that specialize in the dish itself, and especially not in the Tampa Bay area. As diners become more conscious about their health, and as the meals-served-in-bowls trend evolves, poke becomes an even more popular option, Cline said.
Because basic poke only requires a few ingredients, it's an ideal dish to order out or make at home. The most important part of any good poke bowl is the quality of the ingredients — especially the fish, if you choose to go that route.
To make poke yourself, purchase sashimi-grade fish. As with any raw fish, make sure it has a vibrant color and doesn't smell too pungent or "fishy," and keep it refrigerated at all times.
The rest is up to you. You can create a marinade of soy sauce and sesame oil, or go a different route (Cline suggest styles like Latin or Moroccan). You can eat it on its own or on top of rice or greens. Here are some suggestions for building your own poke bowl.
Tuna Poke Bowl
In Hawaii, poke bowls are typically made with tuna (usually either ahi or albacore). For a classic poke bowl, try this recipe, which uses only a few ingredients.
1 pound sashimi-grade ahi (yellowfin) tuna, cubed in ¾-inch pieces
¼ cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1½ teaspoons sesame oil
¾ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
⅓ cup scallions, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon sesame seeds
2 cups brown rice, cooked
2 cups salad greens
Toppings, optional: avocado, mango, pickled ginger or masago (smelt roe)
In a medium-sized bowl, combine tuna, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, crushed red pepper flakes, scallions and sesame seeds.
Layer in two bowls the cooked rice, salad greens, tuna and toppings of your choice.
Source: Adapted from jessicagavin.com.
Salmon Poke Bowl
If you're not a fan of tuna, try a poke bowl with salmon. The fattier fish is also a popular poke option, and this recipe uses more or less the same ingredients as a standard tuna poke bowl recipe.
¼ cup soy sauce
1½ tablespoons rice vinegar
½ tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 pound sashimi-grade salmon, cubed into ½-inch pieces
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup short-grain white rice, cooked
Toppings, optional: sliced radishes, sliced cucumber, diced avocado or furikake
Combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar and garlic powder in a bowl. Add salmon cubes and scallions, saving 1 to 2 tablespoons for garnish, and toss together using a rubber spatula until the fish is evenly coated.
Portion rice into serving bowls and top with poke mixture. Garnish with any toppings you desire.
Source: Adapted from simplyrecipes.com.
Tofu Poke Bowl
Tofu poke bowls are a great alternative for vegetarians or vegans. Substituting tofu for fish ups the soy content.
¼ cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
2 (12-ounce) packages firm or extra firm tofu, cubed into 1-inch pieces
Steamed rice, or raw or steamed kale
2 stalks green onions, thinly sliced
Combine soy sauce, sesame oil and red pepper flakes in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Peel and grate ginger and add it to the soy sauce mixture.
Gently, so as to avoid breaking it up, fold the tofu into the sauce, making sure it's coated well. Spoon onto a base of rice or kale and garnish with green onions.
Source: Adapted from thespruce.com.
Watermelon Poke Bowl
This poke recipe is a more adventurous take on the dish, but it's delicious all the same. Using gluten-free soy sauce, watermelon and agave, it makes for a healthy, summery lunch, or even breakfast, option.
1 tablespoon tamari
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoon lime juice
2 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon cane sugar or agave
½ teaspoon sesame oil
5 cups watermelon, cubed
¼ cup scallions, chopped
1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
¼ cup macadamia nuts
2 tablespoons pickled ginger
1 small jalapeno or Thai chile, diced
½ ripe avocado, pitted and diced
Handful of microgreens (optional)
Furikake or toasted sesame seeds
Make the dressing: Combine the tamari, garlic, lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar and sesame oil in a small bowl.
Toss in the watermelon and scallions and toss until the watermelon is coated. Spoon watermelon out of dressing and into a separate bowl with cucumber, macadamia nuts, pickled ginger, jalapeno, avocado and microgreens. Divide among two bowls, finish with remaining dressing and furikake, and serve.
Source: Adapted from loveandlemons.com.
Ahi Tuna Bowl With Cucumber Noodles
This recipe substitutes a rice base with cucumber noodles, which are made with a spiralizer. If you don't have a spiralizer, try using a vegetable peeler to get veggie strands (though spiralizers are a good investment if you want a healthier alternative to pasta). Carrots, cucumbers or zucchini make for delicious noodles, which elevates this recipe.
1 large sashimi-grade ahi tuna steak, cubed into bite-sized pieces
2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons sesame oil
¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
¼ cup scallions, finely diced
1 ripe avocado, peeled, cubed
1 small jalapeno, seeds removed, finely minced
1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
1 ½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 ½ to 2 large, seedless cucumbers
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine tuna with sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and scallions. Stir well and set aside to let the tuna marinate.
In a separate medium-sized mixing bowl, combine avocado, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Using a whisk or fork, mix until creamy and set aside.
Using spiralizer, make cucumber noodles according to instrument instructions. Pat noodles dry and add them to the avocado mixture, tossing lightly until they're completely coated. Divide noodles into serving bowls and top with tuna poke.
Source: Adapted from inspiralized.com.