Salads. Sushi. Burritos. A whole bunch of foods fall into the category of “could be healthy depending on what’s in it.” And poke def belongs on that list.
Let’s take a closer look.
Poke (“po-KAY”) is a Hawaiian dish centered on raw ahi tuna or marinated octopus. In its traditional form, it was just pieces of ultra-fresh sliced seafood with flavorings like salt and seaweed and maybe a little sticky rice to make it more filling.
In other words, it was mostly about the sweet, delicious protein and not much else.
Of course, the poke you find at most build-your-own-bowl places is pretty different from that original version. Many of us know poke as bowls of raw seafood (or another protein) and rice loaded up with all kinds of goodness.
The exact ingredients vary, but you’ll generally find things like these:
- Fresh fish or other proteins. Raw ahi tuna is still a biggie, but poke bowls with salmon, shrimp, eel, or even tofu are easy to find. All deliver protein to keep you satisfied, and tuna and salmon have the extra benefit of serving up loads of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Sauce. It’s usually a combo of Asian-inspired ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, miso, and ponzu, as well as mayo. A good sauce pulls the whole poke bowl together, though it might be kinda high in sugar, salt, or fat, depending on what’s in it.
- Rice. Sticky white rice is the most traditional base, but brown rice and even alt grains like quinoa are sometimes options. Any grain will give you carbs for energy, but whole grains have the added benefit of fiber to help you feel full longer.
- Fresh fruit and veggies. Cucumber, edamame, peppers, radishes, mushrooms, pineapple, and mango are biggies, thanks to their cooling crunch factor. You don’t need a reminder of why these are good for you, right?
- Pickled veggies. Cucumber, ginger, and jalapeño can add sour crunch, spice, and heat. They’re used as a garnish, so they don’t have much effect on the dish’s nutritional profile.
- Avocado. Mmmm, healthy fats and creamy goodness. What’s not to love?
- Herbs and spices. Extra flavor comes in the form of chopped fresh cilantro, mint, basil, or scallions or diced chile peppers.
- Toppings. Options like sesame seeds, seaweed, and ginger serve up even more flavor plus a side of vitamins and minerals. But options like fried onions and spiced nuts, while seriously delicious, mostly contribute extra calories.
The basic lean protein + carb + veggie premise is definitely a healthy combo, especially if you go with brown rice or a whole grain over white rice.
But it’s worth paying attention to the sauce and the toppings — that’s where the extra salt, sugar, fat, and calories can potentially add up. Mayo-based sauces and crispy or fried toppings tend to have the biggest impact, but even loads of soy or ponzu sauce can be packed with sodium.
There’s not necessarily any right or wrong thing to put in your bowl, as long as you’re enjoying those flavor boosters in moderation.
In Hawaii, fish is traditionally cubed, tossed with a sauce or seasonings, and served sort of like potato or pasta salad (i.e., scooped from those plastic tubs at the deli counter). But it’s prob a little different at your local poke place.
At build-your-own poke bowl shops, the fish or other protein is usually tossed with the sauce and scooped on top of a bed of rice. From there, the veggies, fruit, avocado, and other toppings get piled on to make a pretty bowl.
Is the fish always raw? In traditional Hawaiian poke, yes. But that’s not necessarily the case at most poke bowl shops. While you’ll usually find raw salmon or tuna, it’s also easy to get cooked options like tofu, shrimp, eel, or even chicken.
The great thing about poke is that it’s basically a complete meal, so you don’t need to worry about adding anything else.
TBH, the best pairing is something cool and crisp to wash it all down. A glass of white wine or a pale ale is really, really good with poke. If you don’t wanna booze, you can’t go wrong with a juice and seltzer spritzer.
Lean protein, healthy fats, plenty of veggies, and a serving of energizing carbs means most poke bowls are pretty balanced and nutritious as they are. But there are def ways to bump up the wholesomeness if that’s your jam:
- Pick salmon over tuna. There’s nothing wrong with tuna. Salmon just has more of those all-important omega-3s. And if you’re concerned about mercury, salmon’s a better choice.
- Go for a whole grain. Options like brown rice and quinoa have more fiber than white rice. That’ll help make your poke bowl more filling for the long haul. Doing the low carb thing? You can also skip the grains and have your poke on a bed of salad greens.
- Stick with a soy-based sauce instead of mayo. Soy-based sauces are generally lower in calories and fat than mayo-based ones. For less sodium and sugar, you could also ask for the sauce on the side and use a smaller amount. The result might end up tasting more like sushi than poke. Not bad, just different!
- Skip the fried or crunchy add-ins. These drive up the calorie count without offering much in the nutrition department. Skipping them altogether is definitely the healthiest option, but if cutting them out ruins your poke experience, try limiting them to just a tablespoon or two.
Would traditionalists argue that these kinds of adjustments and subs mean your poke isn’t really poke anymore? Maybe… but you could really say that about almost any poke bowl here in the mainland United States.
If it’s more than just ahi tuna or octopus, a smattering of seasonings, and maybe some sticky white rice, it’s technically not traditional Hawaiian poke. That doesn’t mean your mashed-up version can’t still be delicious, though.
Poke isn’t generally known for being an allergen hotbed. But since it’s ultra-customizable, it’s easy to swap out ingredients that your bod doesn’t agree with.
If you can’t eat fish, you could def swap the tuna or salmon for another protein, like cooked tofu or even chicken, or an extra helping of avocado.
Can’t do soy? Try seasoning your poke with toasted sesame oil, scallions, fresh lime juice, or even a soy-free seasoning like Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. It won’t taste exactly the same, but it’ll still be damn good.
Lean protein and plenty of veggies make poke a pretty healthy choice in general, especially if you opt for a base of brown rice instead of white. Just don’t go overboard on the sauces or toppings. If it seems like too much of a good thing, it probably is.