So often when I consider stepping outside my cooking comfort zone, I psyche myself out before I even begin: How many trips to various markets will this new venture require? How many new jars will my pantry shelves welcome? And how long, if ever, before I reach for those jars again?
As I began reading The Poke Cookbook by Martha Cheng, I was relieved to discover that poke making should cause no such anxiety. With the exception of one ingredient, I had everything listed in the “poke pantry.” I also had everything, with the exception of the tuna, to make the classic poke, shoyu ‘ahi: scallions, onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sambal oelek. And I didn't even need to buy seaweed, as Martha uses dried kale in this recipe to make a version of furikake, which, if you are unfamiliar, is poke’s favorite condiment: a mix of dried seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, and salt. Roasted kale, Martha notes, tastes a lot like seaweed.
I read on to discover that with modern poke, which means “to slice,” there are no hard-and-fast rules—you can let the fish marinate in a dressing, or eat it right after it has been seasoned; you can serve the fish raw or fried or smoked—however you like! And you don’t even have to use fish: poke can be made with tofu, vegetables, and fruit.
Inspired by the low-investment (apart from the tuna) and the anything-goes spirit, I set out to make my first poke bowl: furi-kale and sesame barley, which required only one trip out—to the fish market to buy sashimi-grade tuna.
The bowl came together in about 30 minutes, during which time, I diced the tuna and marinated it; cooked the barley and dressed it (like sushi rice, with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt); and made the furi-kale—the faux furikake—a process akin to making kale chips.
Together, the bowl is a mix of salty-sweet (the barley), spicy-cool (tuna), and earthy-crisp (furi-kale). It’s light, fresh, and satisfying—all I could hope for this time of year.
Even the most positive person in the world might have a hard time suppressing his/her inner Debbie Downer while eating a bowl of tuna poke: How much mercury is in each bite? Is the tuna sustainably fished? Is it safe to eat raw tuna? Is their arsenic in the rice?
If you find these questions arising, consider the many positives about poke:
You don’t have to worry about dry, overcooked fish—no cooking here! (Unless you want to, of course.)
With the exception of the sashimi-grade fish, nothing should require a trip to a specialty market. The dressing here and in many poke bowls is simple, often nothing more than soy sauce, sesame oil, and sambal oelek (or other spicy sauce, if you wish).
Poke is light and fresh tasting.
There are no rules: Martha notes that the most extensive poke counters in Hawaii offer seafood and non-seafood alike—“everything from smoked fish to imitation crab to edamame.”
When making a poke bowl, there are many substitutions for rice, if arsenic is a concern for you: use quinoa or any grain you love—farro, bulgur, and barley are all great options. You can also make cauliflower “rice,” or boil soba or other noodles.
There are many alternatives to tuna: From mercury to sustainability, fish consumption poses concerns. Monterey Bay Aquarium and shops like Whole Foods Market are great resources for finding fish both safe to consume and sourced from sustainable fisheries. As noted above, too, you can use tofu, fruit, and vegetables in place of fish.
- 1 pound sashimi-grade tuna
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce, see notes above
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek
- 6 tablespoons rice vinegar, divided
- 1.5 cups pearled barley, see notes
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more to taste
- 6 scallions, thinly sliced, white and light green parts
- black and/or white sesame seeds
- 1 bunch Tuscan kale, leaves removed from stems
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Will you attempt making poke (or furi-kale) at home? Let us know in the comments!