Poke bowl trend combines choice, healthy ingredients

Many of the latest food trends in the United States, including açaí bowls and sushi burritos, are being driven by environmentally aware Millennials who enjoy customizing quick and healthy fusion-flavored meals. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A poke bowl

On a warm spring day, a line of people snaked out of a small restaurant on a busy street corner in downtown Boston, all waiting to be served cubes of raw fish atop a bed of white rice. The fish and rice are topped with anything from kale to corn to beets to ginger and drizzled with a variety of sauces to create a poke bowl.

“It tastes [really] good, and it’s aesthetically pretty. I like adding all the mixtures together,” says Lane Arkangel, a freshman at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., while standing in line for a poke bowl. She travels into the city at least once a month to order one.

Many of the latest food trends in the United States, including açaí bowls and sushi burritos, are being driven by environmentally aware Millennials who enjoy customizing quick and healthy fusion-flavored meals. 

The poke bowl trend, which traces its origins to Hawaii, is no exception. 

“Certainly the whole Millennial generation like choice; choice is really key ... these days. Giving people [that] and giving them the option to be as healthy as they want is what [people] want,” says Boston celebrity chef and restaurant owner Ming Tsai, who stars in the PBS cooking show “Simply Ming.”

Poke, pronounced poh-kay, is a centuries-old staple of Hawaiian cuisine and means “to slice or cut crosswise into pieces.” The dish traditionally consists of cubed pieces of tuna, octopus, or other seafood and can be mixed with soy sauce, seaweed, and sesame oil, among other ingredients. It is still ubiquitous on the islands.

“[Poke] is everywhere [in Hawaii]. Kind of in the same way you have a deli section on the mainland where you have all your meats, you have all your poke. [It’s] in gas stations, supermarkets, [and] at every gathering or happy hour,” says Martha Cheng, who lives in Hawaii and is the author of “The Poke Cookbook.”

Since 2014, a wave of poke bowl restaurants have inundated the US mainland, with numbers almost doubling between 2014 and 2016, according to Foursquare, a search-and-discovery service. There was also a 643 percent increase in poke orders across the US last year, with an expected 91 percent increase in average monthly popularity this year, according to Grubhub, an online food-
ordering company.

Customers at a restaurant serving poke bowls can customize their meal. They choose their base (rice or noodles), proteins (anything from tuna to salmon to chicken) and toppings. A poke bowl often costs between $10 and $12, depending on the restaurant and the ingredients a customer chooses. 

While Millennials have been quick to embrace world cuisines, an environmental awareness also drives their consumer choices, and they aren’t afraid to demand transparency from food suppliers. The rising popularity of sushi, for instance, eventually stirred debate over the sustainability of bluefin tuna. But with poke bowls, even though ahi tuna, which refers to the largely overfished yellowfin and bigeye species, is a popular protein, the trend isn’t adding to overfishing, says Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. He adds, however, that it’s something worth talking about. For those consumers interested in sourcing their food, Mr. Bigelow suggests looking for a Seafood Watch partner or eating at a restaurant with a commitment to sustainable seafood. “It’s really important that people know what they eat. You want to know ... where your beef came from. And we should expect the same for our seafood,” he says.

When eating at a poke restaurant, it’s important to know that the fish has been properly handled and stored to ensure you are consuming good quality tuna or salmon that hasn’t been frozen more than once. 

“Just like any steakhouse [where] the quality of the steak makes the steakhouse, the quality of the fish makes the poke house,” says Mr. Tsai. 

“Golden rule: Go [to] the busiest one, and wait in line.”

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