In recent years, poke bowls have started to become increasingly popular all across the world. Few dishes are able to capture freshness, flavor and oceanic ingredients quite like the beloved classic. However, the poke bowls we see today have evolved significantly from its origins at the hands of ancient Hawaiian fisherman. In this blog, we’ll delve deep into the origin and evolution of the Hawaii poke bowl, and look at some of the ways it has changed over time as a result of outside cultural influences adding their own spin and delicious take on the dish.
In Hawaiian, the word “poke” (pronounced (poh-keh), means “to slice or cut crosswise into pieces.” Fishermen in ancient Hawaii would take reef fish (i.e near-shore fish) and massage them with simple ingredients from the sea such as sea salt, seaweed or limu, which is a type of algae. Salting the fish was done both for flavor and more importantly, to preserve the fish.
During the 19th century, as we saw more advanced fishing fleets enter the pacific, as well as the arrival of Japanese workers coming to Hawaii, the predominant fish used for poke shifted from reef fish to deepwater fish, typically ahi tuna.
Poke began evolving from a local Hawaiian specialty to an international sensation during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when many Asian immigrants settled in Hawaii and brought many of their culinary traditions along with them. Japanese and other Asian influences combined with the native Hawaiian fish preparation techniques. This addition of outside influences led to the incorporation of other popular poke bowl ingredients such as soy sauce, seaweed, and sesame oil. Finally, in the 1990’s, people began to see poke in their local grocery stores and supermarkets.
As each group of outside influences added its own ingredients to the classic Hawaii poke bowl, variations of the dish have also multiplied. Originally a very simple dish made from whatever fishermen might have on hand, there are countless versions of poke bowls, including ones made with shrimp, octopus, and dried beef
At its core, a poke bowl typically consists of a base, the raw fish, some complementary ingredients to serve as a garnish while adding extra flavor and texture, and a sauce drizzled on top to enhance the flavor.
The base is typically made up of rice or greens, which act as a foundation for all of the fresh and delicious ingredients that sit on top of it. After the rice is the raw fish, which is usually tuna or salmon. The raw fish is cubed and marinated in something like soy sauce or sesame oil to enhance the flavor. Sitting atop the fish and the base are the ingredients which can vary from dish to dish. The sky’s the limit when it comes to toppings. Some popular additions are cucumbers, edamame, cucumbers and crispy onion.
One of the takeaways that has resulted from so many outside influences on the Hawaii poke bowl is that it has turned it into a dish that is ultimately very customizable. The beauty lies not just in the taste, but also in the fact that individuals can tailor ingredients based on their preferences and dietary requirements. This factor alone has made it a very popular choice for health-conscious consumers, as well as consumers across a variety of different regions and cultures.
Along with its traditional form, the poke bowl has also developed numerous creative versions or poke bowl inspired dishes. More modern versions of the dish include cooked proteins for those who prefer cooked meat, or protein as a substitution for those who may be vegetarian. People have also started adding more toppings to the bowl, such as mango or pineapple, sesame seeds, or sweet potatoes.
Although these variations may look and taste much different than the way than original Hawaii poke bowls, they are still a great way to cater to those with dietary restrictions or specific food preferences while still paying homage to the classic poke bowl.
Thanks to its origination on the tropical shores of Hawaii, poke bowls are a major part of the everyday lifestyle and cuisine that we see in Hawaii today. Locals serve the food everywhere, ranging from casual concerts and football tailgates to formal events such as luxury weddings and reunions. It is considered a culinary masterpiece to many and a staple in Hawaiian diets.
From its humble beginnings as a fisherman’s snack to its evolution into a major global sensation, the poke bowl embodies the essence of fusion cuisine by blending traditional Hawaiian flavors and food preparation techniques with modern culinary techniques and food preferences, allowing everyone to be able to enjoy it in some way.
If you’re in the California area and looking to try delicious and customizable poke bowls made with all-natural ingredients for yourself, check out Sweetfin. To see a list of all of their California locations, click here.