Bowled Over

Easy, adaptable, nutritious and beautiful to behold – no wonder ‘bowl food’ has become a buzzword among health-conscious foodies.

Compared with the cronut, rainbow latte and all those other gimmicky, slightly nauseating trends that social media has gorged on in recent years, the humble #bowlfood seems like an unlikely addition. What, after all, is so remarkable about serving food in this everyday utensil? We’ve been slurping soup from the things since time immemorial.

Well, to start with, the photogenic ‘Buddha Bowls’ that have become an Instagram favorite (at last count, some 215,000 posts had this hashtag) consist of individually apportioned ingredients, showing off all the components in their colorful, wholesome glory. It’s a sort of truth to materials approach to food presentation that ties in with the wider craze for ‘clean eating’; healthy, natural produce consumed in the most unrefined form possible.

“The story goes that these packed bowls got their name from having a rounded top like a Buddha’s belly”

A Buddha bowl typically has a grain or starch base, such as quinoa, topped with at least one portion of the following: leafy greens or other veg, protein and nuts or seeds. Perhaps also a dollop of something creamy like hummus or guacamole, fresh herbs and a dressing. Some see it as a strictly vegan or vegetarian affair, others are happy to throw in meat or fish.

The story goes that these packed bowls got their name from having a rounded top like a Buddha’s belly, though some say it relates to the small amounts of food that a Buddhist monk travelling with only a bowl would be handed by people along the way. Of course, there’s not really anything spiritual about them – just another example, like yoga, of how Eastern spirituality can be commodified.

You may also have seen them called grain, hippie, macro or soul bowls. But one thing is for certain: ‘the bowl’ has become part of our culinary vocabulary.

Two bowls of food
Photo by Stephen Clarke.

The past year has seen an influx of cookbooks published on the theme, including “Bowls of Plenty” from James Beard Award-winning food writer Carolynn Carreño, Williams-Sonoma’s “One Bowl Meals Cookbook,” “Bowls of Goodness” by Nina Olsson, and “Buddha Bowls” by Hannah Pemberton.

British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson devoted a chapter to it in her recent cookbook, “Simply Nigella.” “For me, ‘bowl food’ is simply shorthand for food that is simultaneously soothing, bolstering, undemanding and sustaining,” she writes. “I would be very happy if I ate food out of a bowl for the rest of my life.”

“I would be very happy if I ate food out of a bowl for the rest of my life” – nigella lawson

Another favorite of health-conscious food bloggers is the smoothie bowl, clocking up one million hashtag uses on Instagram to date. A blend of frozen fruit, ice, protein powders and healthy fats (e.g. nut butter), they are thicker than a traditional smoothie and therefore eaten like soup rather than slurped through a straw. Neat rows of sliced fresh fruit, nuts and seeds are arranged prettily over the top.

As much as these bowls look aesthetically pleasing, there are also practical reasons behind their popularity. They offer a fast-track to creating a nutritionally balanced meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

“Initially it was a social media craze. Bowls create a great post, as they are perfectly crafted and look beautiful,” observes Cayman-based nutritionist and fitness expert Nadine Dumas. “That got the idea on the map, and then on top of it, they tasted amazing and contained all these superfoods and sauce concoctions. Nowadays I find that they are used for convenience too: you can get your carbs, proteins and healthy fats all in one bowl.”

Anna Lisle, author of “Whole Food, Bowl Food,” agrees:Bowl food is not only easy but it’s entirely adaptable. There’s no plating, just stacking each component of the recipe up together in a bowl – what’s more appealing than that?”

Ideal for weeknight suppers, you can prep the components ahead and throw a delicious, balanced bowl together in seconds. On a Sunday evening, simply cook a big batch of grains, shake up a dressing in a jar and shred or roast some vegetables. “The key to a delicious, satisfying bowl is having the right balance of carbohydrate, protein, leafy greens or veg and then adding texture,” Anna explains.

Nadine adds that leftovers often make the best bowls. “Whether its barbecued chicken, steamed rice, grilled veggies – I say throw it all in, and add your favorite spices and condiments. Some of my favorites are apple cider vinegar, avocado (guacamole), salsa, lemon, lime, cilantro, basil, sea salt and hot sauce.”

Then there is the comfort factor: This is food for curling up on the sofa, the warm weight of supper cupped in your hands, eaten with just a fork or spoon. A nostalgic reminder, perhaps, of simple childhood meals.

“I’m drawn to the way you can happily nurse a bowl on your lap and scoop up just the right amount of each component of the dish – a slice of this, a mound of leafy greens and a scrape of dressing, all while perched at the kitchen counter or curled up in the lounge,” says Anna. “Ultimately, bowl food is all about creating nourishing and comforting meals that are easy to pull together.”

“Ultimately, bowl food is all about creating nourishing and comforting meals that are easy to pull together” – ANNA LISLE

Her favorite go-to bowls include: miso roasted salmon, coconut steamed brown rice, stir fried edamame beans and topped with crunchy seaweed (nori); or jerk chicken strips, quinoa, guacamole, a handful of red cabbage slaw and topped with roasted paprika cashews. “For meat-free nights, I’m addicted to pan-fried halloumi bowl with green pea and cauliflower fritters and a fresh tomato and olive salsa (called sauce vierge). And my weeknight go-to is Thai coconut zucchini noodles with prawns and cashews – perfect for when I’m craving something spicy and quick.”

There’s something about all these colorful fresh ingredients that shouts ‘summer.’ Here in Cayman’s sunny climate, several restaurants now offer nutritious, flavorful bowls. Island Naturals and Fresh Kitchen both have several fruit-topped acai (a type of antioxidant-rich berry from South America) bowls on their breakfast menus, as well as savory lunchtime versions packed with vegetables and grains. Fresh Kitchen takes its inspiration from around the world, with options ranging from “Mediterranean” (featuring red peppers, feta, Kalamata olives) to “Baja” (black beans, corn, salsa fresca) to “Teriyaki” (edamame, crispy wontons, sesame seeds).

Over at Jessie’s Juice Bar in Camana Bay, there is a Buddha Bowl packed with radicchio, zucchini noodles, beets, arugula and chickpeas with lashings of a turmeric and mint mayo or sesame miso dressing. Bread & Chocolate in George Town puts a Caribbean spin on the idea with its ‘Island Bowl’ of spicy jerk tofu, garlic sautéed seasonal greens, black beans with coconut sauce, shredded roots and fried plantain served over cilantro brown rice or quinoa.

While the trend is beloved of health-conscious foodies, Nadine adds a warning: “As much as these are great and delicious, a lot out there are quite calorie-dense, especially the smoothie and acai bowls. Many use a considerable amount of fruit and hidden sweeteners that can put you over your daily intake. The same goes for sauces – be careful, as this is where your calories can go out the window. While they still may be healthy fats, they can contain a bit too much if you’re eating them daily.”

She encourages her clients to make their own bowls at home to keep control over what goes in. So, get creative with our bowl building guide and tuck into a speedy, satisfying and vibrant meal that ticks all the nutritional boxes.