Fishy Delight

Priya Kulasagaran dives into a healthy and traditional fusion experience with the poke bowl specialists at Paperfish.

While sushi has now become an entrenched mainstay for most local foodies, this year’s trend of poke bowls has taken raw fish into a different direction. Contrary to the cute name, poke (pronounced poh-kay) has nothing to do with Pokemon or poking at your food like a fussy toddler.

A centuries-old dish from the shores of Hawaii, United States, a typical poke bowl has chunks of raw fish atop a bed of rice. The word poke in Hawaiian means to “cut crosswise into pieces”, referring to the fish slices. In Hawaii, the food can be found anywhere from stalls to gas stations. Like many culinary staples around the world, the dish was a way of utilising leftovers (in this case, fish from a day’s catch) without sacrificing nutrition and flavour.

Thanks to large scale migration to the island, the dish also brings in Japanese sensibilities, notably to the seasoning of the dish to include that elusive umami taste. This includes toppings such as seaweed and furikake (comprising sesame seeds, dried fish and seaweed).

As more people seeking out healthier food options, poke bowls have arrived at an ideal juncture to fill this need. Packed with fresh ingredients and lots of vegetables, it is easy to see why these colourful bowls are being marketed as wholesome meals for busy urbanites.

Now the dish has hit the local food scene, one of the best places to sample poke is Paperfish in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Owned by six friends, the outlet’s name is clever reflection of the dish’s Japanese influences — as well as the concept of how your lunch is hand-crafted by the servers.

A bowl of goodness

“There’s a reason why we call ourselves crafters,” says Paperfish supervisor Alyssa Chuah, gesturing to the open bar of ingredients where diners can customise their bowls. “We want people to engage with their meals, and get to really know what they’re eating. I’d say our philosophy is minimalist — we focus on letting the flavours of fresh ingredients shine, and keep things simple, relaxing and healthy.”

Indeed, the setting of the eatery is airy and light, with clean white walls, wide tables and benches, as well as ample space. Outside, the first thing that greets patrons as they walk in is a colourful wall of origami creations; to which customers are encourage to add to, along with their feedback.

Chuah reckons that alongside the healthy appeal of the food served, the casual nature of the set-up is the thing that has made Paperfish a popular neighbourhood joint. “I’d say this based on my own parents as well,” she says with a grin. “With some of the trendier looking places, older customers feel a bit ‘scared’ about being surrounded by young people. Here, we keep things simple and fuss-free, and it helps to have friendly staff as well.”

The base of poke bowls are usually a carbohydrate, particularly rice, although some restaurants include options such as pasta or noodles. At Paperfish, those wishing for an even healthier choice can select either quinoa or even baby greens to make it a full salad.

While raw tuna may be the traditional protein option, these days other seafood such as salmon and shrimp are popular as well. The fish is usually marinated, either in a simple soy-sauce base, or in Paperfish’s case, slightly more contemporary mixtures with citrus or chilli. To round off the dish, toppings are added for flavour and texture; these can be anything from vegetables, seasoning like sesame seeds and seaweed, or even egg.

If this sounds like a case of too many choices, fret not: Paperfish offers patrons a list of pre-set bowls that you can start your customisation from. This includes tuna, salmon and shrimp; vegans and vegetarians meanwhile, can opt for the avocado bowl.

The bowls themselves come in generous portions; my citrus-marinated salmon dish arrived littered with delectable salmon cubes, and I was glad that the paper container could withstand the weight of the serving. Digging in, the freshness of the salmon was unmistakable, and I am assured of Chuah’s comment of the outlet having no qualms of turning away ingredients from suppliers at their doorsteps if they are not up to scratch.

You can also opt for sauces such as sriracha, wasabi and garlic if you want that extra kick to your meal. “We try not to use too much (sauce) when preparing the bowls, because otherwise the sauce might overpower everything else in the dish,” adds Chuah. But customers are feel to help themselves to more.”

By the end of the meal, my only complaint is perhaps I should have opted for a vegetable base so as to not feel like a python digesting its prey. Despite the eternal parking woes of the area during the day time, the outlet is usually packed for lunch and dinner – after sampling its wares, the appeal makes sense. So if you’re craving for a healthy meal, without wanting to feel as if you are on a diet, Paperfish might just be the answer.

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