Poke bowls are... everything. They’re hand-held horns of plenty which can presumably contain every imaginable flavour and texture – because even in the Klang Valley, you’ll come across toppings ranging from deep-fried salmon skin to lychees and cubes of ripe mango. No chocolate yet, but can a dessert poke bowl be far away?
A centuries-old Hawaiian dish, poke (pronounced poh-kay) refers to the cuts of raw fish that top a typical poke bowl. The word “poke” means to cut or slice, and the dish originated from the odd off-cuts of a fishing catch – waste not, want not, especially when you can season with a little sea salt or soy sauce and enjoy it as a snack!
Prolific Japanese migration to the island state evolved the snack further, by proliferating the seasonings and toppings for the dish, to include seaweed and furikake (a mixture for sprinkling, made from ground dried fish, seaweed and sesame seeds). The Japanese link has proved an important point of connection for Malaysian diners, many of whom have a long-standing love affair with Japanese cuisine.
“Poke bowls have that Japanese feel to them, so there’s recognisable common ground for diners here,” said Joel Liu, co-owner of poke bar Fin in Publika.
Today, you’ll find poke eaten widely across Hawaii, sold in convenience stores and restaurants. Poke fever has also swept across the United States, so dedicated poke bowl restaurants are found from New York to Santa Monica; last year, Britain was seeing burgeoning interest in the dish as well.
They’ve found their way into the Klang Valley over the past year or so as well, with poke kiosks and dedicated restaurants opening; they’ve also started to show up on the menus of some Japanese restaurants, fitting in nicely on a modern Jap menu especially.
Poke bowls have a base, on which the poke is layered. Traditionally, this is hot rice, although you’ll also find it served cold – similar to sushi – or with quinoa, zucchini noodles, even just a base of salad.
Traditional Hawaiian poke is ahi tuna or octopus, but salmon is popular too, and cooked options like shrimp, tofu and chicken cater to the those who don’t want raw fish.
The raw fish is usually marinated, although some restaurants opt for naked seafood to showcase its freshness, or a really quick toss in the marinade. Others can be marinated for hours, in a classic soy sauce mixture or more modern citrus- or chilli-spiked concoctions.
Atop the rice and poke, a myriad toppings add interest and crunch – nuts, seaweed, various vegetables, even egg.
And then there are the sauces. While some owners – like Ryan Thoo and Nicholas Alec from Taman Tun Dr Ismail’s Paperfish poke restaurant – feel that the marination of the poke should provide the flavour, others think much of the secret lies in the sauces that perk up the bowl.
“It’s the sauces that make or break your bowl,” said Michelle Liu, Joel’s sister and poke bar partner at Fin. Most poke places offer both mayo-based sauces and lighter, soy sauce-based.
Poke bowls are marketed as healthy, and it’s hard to argue with that reasoning when you spy a bowl bursting with colour, crunch and a plethora of fresh ingredients. They make for a wholesome, fresh and fuss-free meal, and easily lend themselves to on-the-go-eating. With rice as a base, they’re very filling – if you opt for quinoa, even more so.
The most important thing though, is the freshness. Across the board, all six poke places we visited discard any unused produce at the end of the day – but they minimise wastage by preparing in small batches, and estimating the number of bowls they’ll sell.
And let’s get the purple Pikachu in the room out of the way ... No. Poke bowls have nothing to do with Pokemon, and you will not fill your Poke index by eating them.
That’s been the initial question that some first-timers have asked Michelle. “But we’re happy to explain, and happy that they’re stopping to ask!” she said.
A little poke bowl bar on Art Row – which flanks one side of Publika Shopping Gallery – Fin is just a couple of months old, but the chiller full of fresh ingredients is drawing hosts of intrigued diners. Owners Joel, 25, and Michelle, 24, have also branched out into catering and delivery.
The siblings prep for only about 50 bowls a day. From the shelled edamame to the cubes of fried tofu (for a vegan bowl), everything is prepared fresh daily, and with a distinctive, admirable precision.
Joel, 25, used to work in R&D for an F&B company and his food science background is clearly manifest in Fin’s offerings. The togarashi egg is hard-boiled, but with a perfectly creamy, smooshy centre, boiled for a precise seven minutes. The shrimp are crystalline in their translucency, with a gorgeous bounce. “We start cooking in cool water, then raise the temperature slowly,” he said.
The make-your-own bowls are RM15, with a choice of warm brown or sushi rice, poke, three sides, as many toppings you’d like (hint: do not stint on the buttered almonds, they lend crunch and a lovely nutty flavour to any combination) and one of the five house-made sauces.
The quirkily-named Action Bronson, a simple mix of soy sauce and sesame oil, is the seasoning base for any bowl. It’s also used as a quick marinade for the cubes of ahi tuna and salmon. You can opt for more of the same to douse the built bowl.
Otherwise, there is smooth, creamy Roasted Sesame Mayo or the tongue-tingling Sriracha Mayo; for a hint of spice and a lighter, runnier sauce, the Wasabi & Ginger Soy, or the Sichuan Chilli Oil.
If you find yourself flummoxed by choices, there are three signature bowls: The O.G. (RM19), which channels Japanese style and spirit with ahi tuna, avocado, kyuri, a hint of ginger, wakame and nori, with Action Bronson; Moana RM16), which has salmon cubes, edamame, corn, purple cabbage, seaweed, a togarashi egg half and squiggles of Roasted Sesame Mayo; and Lucky Mao (RM15), with those plump shrimp, sliced sugar snap peas, lychees, carrots, coriander, buttered almonds, chilli flakes and Sichuan chilli oil.
Lot 52, Art Row (outside Baskin Robbins), Publika, 1, Jalan Dutamas 1, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 012-7800 270. Open daily, 10am to 4pm
The Fish Bowl
The high-ceilinged, white-washed space that is Bandar Sunway’s poke enclave opened in August last year. It’s a mostly make-your-own deal, with customers filling in a form that lets you pick a base – white, red or salad – with four sides, one poke, two sauces and unlimited toppings for RM16.90.
In a hurry? Go for standard salmon, tuna or shrimp bowls. And if you’re extra hungry, you can up-size your bowl for RM6.
It’s proven to be popular, with about 250 bowls sold on weekdays, and between 300 and 400 bowls ordered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Unlike the sushi rice prevalent at most other poke bars, The Fish Bowl serves fragrant Thai long grain rice. “This makes the bowl substantial, but not over-filling,” said managing director Aaron Lim, 27.
Our favourite though is the chewy red rice, which adds texture and a hint of that clean flavour and fragrance to a bowl.
Top your bowl with the shoyu salmon or tuna (the closest to the original dish), lovely, fragrant kaffir lime salmon or sriracha salmon, or shoyu chilli tuna, which boasts some serious cili padi power.
The pokes are marinated for about six hours, so the kaffir lime salmon is slightly cured, somewhat like a firm ceviche. There’s also a garlicky cooked shrimp, and chicken baked with honey and herbs.
Toppings include vegetables, nuts and fruit like pineapple and mango. For an extra RM2.50, you can add avocado, runny-centred poached egg or crisp-fried salmon skin.
Right now, the available sauces are aioli, lime mayo and a Baby-Racha or Monster-Racha, depending on the firepower you want.
Debuting at the end of the month, along with a second outlet at One Utama, are some pre-set bowl choices, along with new bases, sauces and pokes, making The Fish Bowl one of the most varied in terms of choices. Look out for new bases like quinoa, pesto rice and jasmine green tea rice, while deep-fried softshell crab and unagi kabayaki will join the list of proteins.
“There will also be new marinade flavours for the salmon and tuna. And we’re adding a hot, clear tea seafood soup which you can pour over the rice,” said Lim.
“And for Ramadan, we will be introducing a poke version of nasi kerabu, with blue rice, coconut curry salmon and kerisik.”
77 Jalan PJS 11/9, Bandar Sunway, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Tel: 03-5612 9992. Open daily, 10.30am to 10pm.
There are only three poke bowl creations at this Taman Desa restaurant. “Not your traditional Japanese,” says owner Calvin Goh, 34. But, they’re well worth the trip.
Goh opened Eatomo in late 2016 with wife, Eva Lee, 34. The couple lived in California and wanted to emulate some of the cuisine they missed when they moved back to Malaysia. The restaurant’s modern Japanese sensibilities effortlessly encompass concepts like the poke bowl and Peruvian ceviche.
“I tasted my first poke bowl in 2013, and fell in love with its freshness, complexity and layers of flavour,” says Goh. “We actually created Eatomo with poke bowls as the main stars, but then I couldn’t resist adding more and more of my favourite dishes to the menu.”
The first bowl introduced is its most popular – the California Poke Bowl (RM19.90) is a truly lush and luscious offering, with chunks of salmon, tuna and butterfish tossed in a simple marinade of soy sauce, (halal) mirin, sesame oil and sugar. You can really taste the freshness of the buttery fish. The fish is piled on sushi rice and topped with guacamole, crabstick salad, masago (capelin roe) and drizzles of spicy mayo.
The other two are the Spicy Salmon Poke Bowl and Spicy Negitoro Poke Bowl (both RM19.90), which are both pretty piquant; for these, the poke are marinated for at least 30 minutes. They’re also topped with guacamole and crabstick salad, but have crumbled tortilla chips added.
11-1-1 Jalan 3/109F Danau Business Centre Taman Danau Desa, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-2303 1608. Open daily, 12pm to 3pm, 6pm to 10.30pm
Sushi + Rotary Sushi Bar
Ok, so not everyone is looking to shy away from the Pokemon question. “We did think maybe diners might draw a connection between poke and Pokemon when the game was launched!” said Alex Yap, operations manager and co-owner of Sushi + Rotary Sushi Bar in Puchong.
Plus, as a general rule, diners in a Japanese restaurant are quite appreciative of raw fish, so he felt it would fit right in with the rest of the menu – which features both classic and progressive Japanese food, along with the sushi that makes its way around the room on an enclosed kaiten belt.
The Puchong outlet is the second for Sushi + Rotary Sushi Bar – the first is all the way in Chicago, where it was set up by a Malaysian migrant, a former schoolmate of Yap and his partners.
There are two poke bowls available – the Salmon Poke Bowl (RM21.80) and the Aloha Poke Bowl (RM23.80). The first is simpler, with hefty cubes of fresh salmon, tamago slices, crunchy marinated seaweed, cucumber and edamame.
The Aloha is a fish bonanza with salmon, tuna and butterfish, cut in large, substantial cubes and served with avocado, seaweed, daikon, pickles and ebiko on rice. The fish for both are lightly marinated in shoyu and mirin, letting the clean taste of fresh seafood shine.
1F-01 Kompleks Kenari, Jalan Kenari 19, Bandar Puchong Jaya, Puchong, Selangor. Tel: 012-289 2777. Open daily, 11am to 10.30pm.
At Paperfish, diners choose from a list of pre-set bowls, with salmon, tuna and shrimp with various marinades, and an avocado bowl for the vegetarians.
“The thing with make-your-own bowls is that sometimes the combination of various sides doesn’t really work,” said co-owner Nicholas Alec, 27. “We wanted to reduce the likelihood of first-timers especially having a bad experience, so we decided on pre-set bowls.”
But if you want some level of customisation, you can choose your base, and then swap out sides or add some extra. Popular sides include the wobbly onsen egg, cooked sous vide at 63°C for 45 minutes, and shards of crisp salmon skin. You can also up-size the bowl for RM6, for a 30% bigger portion.
Diners help themselves to the sauces – all mayo-based, with wasabi, sriracha or garlic – but Alec would rather they taste the poke bowls without sauce first.
“That way, you get to taste the marination of the fish,” he said.
All bowls are topped with ebiko, seaweed, furikake and sesame seeds.
Currently, the daytime crowd at Paperfish is consuming about 100 bowls daily, while dinner time sees about 150 sold.
Paperfish is owned by six childhood friends – Alec, who was one of the original partners at The Fish Bowl, Ryan Thoo, 28, Brian Lee, 27, Lai Ee Lynn, 28, Mike Tiu, 29, and dancer and radio deejay Dennis Yin, 29. There’s always at least one of them overseeing operations daily.
With its name a dual nod to the Japanese influences clear in poke and the concept of serving hand-crafted food, the Paperfish partners underscore their theme with a wall of origami fish (and if you look hard, you can spot a contrary cat). Diners can write messages on the origami – those with dexterous hands can fold their own.
26 Jalan Datuk Sulaiman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-2385 0007. Open daily, 10am to 10pm.
One of the newest poke places, Poke Bear has been open for just over a month – but law grad Andrew Sachdev, 22, had been toying with the idea for over a year now.
“I graduated from a uni in Britain last year, when poke was just starting to come into London,” he says.
Looking to capture the healthy eating crowd, he got himself a few (silent) partners – one a Japanese chef, who helped him formulate the menu – and opened a kiosk with a small seating area, in Sunway Pyramid.
At Poke Bear, you have three choices. You can build your own bowl for RM18, picking a base of sushi or brown rice (served warm and slicked with teriyaki sauce) or salad. The raw poke is shielded from the temperature of the rice by a layer of salad leaves.
Choose a combination of five sides – including fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and slices of tamago and crabstick. Add one poke: small cubes of salmon, tuna, cooked shrimp or octopus.
“They’re not marinated, because the flavour comes from the sauces,” says Andrew.
Sauces and toppings like ebiko, fried shallots or furikake (a fine sprinkling of ground dried fish, sesame seeds and chopped seaweed) are limited only by your imagination and bowl capacity.
The sauces include a runny avocado sauce with a strong celery and cucumber character, miso, sesame, a garlicky spicy mayo, wasabi, kimchi and mentai. The crowd favourite (and ours) is the smoky-savoury mentai, which really elevates a bowl.
Poke Bear also has four pre-conceived poke notions – including the protein-packed Gym Junkie (RM27), with a brown rice base, and salmon, tuna and shrimp topped with crabstick, mango, pineapple, corn, tamago and walnuts, miso sesame dressing, ebiko, furikake, seaweed, sesame and spring onions, and The Vegan Supreme (RM16), which is a melange of vegetables with avocado sauce and sesame dressing, plus ebiko and furikake (opt out of these if you want a truly vegan bowl) and the usual condiments.
Finally, there’s a poke wrap (RM15) – the usual suspects wrapped up in nori sheets for a moveable poke feast.
LG1 Blue Atrium, Sunway Pyramid, Bandar Sunway, Selangor. Tel: 03-7494 0257. Open daily, 10am to 10pm.