Gluten-Free Japanese Food (Sushi)
*Leave a comment below if you’d like me to create printables for this series*
Even though I’ve been eating Japanese food for years, I’ve put off writing this post for a few reasons:
1) My experience with gluten-free Japanese food is limited mostly to sushi because of a lack of other (affordable) types of Japanese cuisine in my area. Hibachi (Japanese steakhouse) restaurants can be a nice gluten-free option, but I don’t have personal experience with them. I’ve done a little research, and it is recommended to always have your food cooked in the kitchen and not on the shared grill. It may also be helpful to bring your own gluten-free soy sauce and stick to simple preparations.
Experienced with GF hibachi? Share your tips below!
2) The risk of gluten contamination at a Japanese restaurant is highly variable. Depending on the restaurant you select, it may be very easy to eat gluten-free…but it also might be a pain. As with most cuisines, the quality of the ingredients and the knowledge of the staff matter the most for the overall gluten-free experience.
3) There are some etiquette issues that require a delicate touch. In the Japanese culture, it is traditionally considered rude to question the quality of ingredients or the methods of preparation when dining out. However, most Western sushi restaurants are now used to diners with food allergies/intolerances. Be polite and respectful, and there should be no accidental etiquette faux pas.
Despite my hesitations about writing this post, I believe that Japanese food can be a fabulous option for gluten-free diners. Japanese food is rice-based, traditionally dairy-free and pescatarian-friendly, and relatively nutritious.
As with other types of cuisine I’ve previously reviewed, Japanese cuisine in its traditional form is fairly easy to adapt to be gluten-free. Your most likely source of gluten contamination is shared preparation areas/equipment and unlisted ingredients (specifically, soy sauce and tempura). Any restaurant that uses cheaper alternatives for traditional ingredients is also a gluten contamination risk.
I will be reviewing a lot of information in this post, and at first glance it may seem overwhelming or discouraging, but please remember I am discussing all potential gluten contamination risks. I will focus most of my discussion on sushi because 1) that’s what I know, and 2) it’s the type of Japanese restaurant you’ll most likely find in your city. To prevent confusion, I will discuss a few miscellaneous types of dishes/beverages that show up on a lot of sushi menus.
If you’ve never eaten sushi, I recommend starting simple with a basic maki roll or sashimi (see information below) and selecting a restaurant that has a gluten-free menu or is well-versed in accommodating gluten-free diners. Once you get comfortable with a restaurant, it could be fun to order more creative rolls or ask your chef to make something special for you. As always, if you are especially sensitive to gluten contamination, it is very important to check labels, request a separate preparation area, and know what common ingredients may contain gluten.
*When I speak of gluten-free sushi, I am generally talking about made-to-order sushi at a restaurant. Pre-made sushi (like at the grocery store) has a much greater risk of gluten contamination due to shared preparation areas and equipment. If you are not especially sensitive to gluten contamination, pre-made sushi that contains no gluten ingredients might be a good option for you. For instance, Wegmans stores recently added a “no gluten ingredients” sushi to their pre-made options.
What to Expect
Feel free to skip this section if you are a sushi connoisseur. For sushi newbies, it may be helpful to understand some basics about sushi.
Standard sushi ingredients:
- Sushi Rice: short-grain sticky white rice prepared with rice vinegar, salt, and sugar – traditionally gluten-free but is controversial in the GF community. BOTTOM LINE: if you have trouble digesting GF grains or are extremely sensitive to gluten contamination, it may be wise to skip the rice and stick to cucumber-wrapped maki (if available) or sashimi. You may also be able to request plain rice. Call the restaurant in advance to discuss your options.
- Nori: seaweed wrapper (may be inside or outside the rice) – traditionally gluten-free
- Protein: usually fish (raw, steamed, grilled, or deep-fried), seafood, or vegetables
- “Decorations”: roe/masago/tobiko (fish eggs) and/or sesame seeds – traditionally gluten-free, but cheaper alternatives may contain gluten (ASK to see labels or request to have it made without them)
Types of sushi:
- Sashimi: sliced raw fish only – traditionally picked by the chef
- Nigiri: sliced fish with ball of rice underneath – no nori, may automatically add wasabi
- Maki/Roll: almost always made with nori and rice, but may also be made with cucumber or other types of wrappers (ASK if you have questions or special requests)
- Special Rolls: will vary based on restaurant – most likely to contain gluten ingredients
What you may see on your plate:
- Sushi (see below for how to order)
- Gari (pickled ginger, pinkish or yellowish): to cleanse your palate, adds a little flavor kick
- Wasabi (green paste): traditionally gluten-free, but cheaper alternatives may contain gluten (ASK to see packaging or bring your own)
- Soy Sauce: traditionally contains gluten, but many restaurants offer a gluten-free version (ASK to see bottle or bring your own)
- Spicy Sauce/Dynamite Sauce (when you see the word “spicy”, usually orange): traditionally a mixture of mayonnaise and sriracha, which are often but not always gluten-free (ASK to see labels)
The Gluten Factor
- Anything stir-fried/deep-fried/battered/crunchy/crispy (“katsu”)
- Tempura: fried, wheat-based batter (crunchy/crispy flakes)
- Panko: wheat-based breadcrumb
- Soy Sauce: traditionally contains gluten, often used in other sauces (ponzu, teriyaki, eel) and in stir-fries → bring your own or request GF soy sauce/tamari (if available)
- Imitation Seafood/Crab Stick/Kani Kama: contains gluten, found in California Roll → substitute lump crab or shrimp (may be an upcharge)
- Unagi/Eel/Eel Sauce: contains gluten (soy sauce)
- Beer/Happoushu: contains gluten
- Udon noodles: contain gluten
- Ramen noodles: contain gluten
Potential Gluten Ingredients:
- Brown sauces (usually contain soy sauce)
- Vinegars, dressings, marinades, dipping sauces
- Miso soup: may contain barley
- Green tea: may contain barley (added to make it less bitter for Western palates)
- Soba noodles: usually not 100% buckwheat and/or water is contaminated
- Dumplings of any kind
- Shōchū/Japanese Whisky → see my notes about distilled beverages in my Alcohol Guide
Gluten on the Menu:
This is the actual sushi menu I most recently ordered from, so your restaurant’s menu may vary. I’ve highlighted potential gluten sources in red. You may be able to subsitute these ingredients for GF options at some restaurants. Click on the thumbnails for a larger image of each picture.
Other Common Allergens
- Soy: soy sauce (even GF), miso, edamame
- Fish/Seafood: sushi/sashimi
- Eggs: mayo in most spicy sauces
- Call ahead to discuss gluten-free options and assess familiarity with accommodating gluten-free diners
- Ask for simple preparations at first and select naturally GF sashimi/rolls
- Always ask about unlisted ingredients when ordering your meal and confirm your selections’ gluten-free status
- Order sashimi or ask for plain rice or cucumber wrapper if you’re concerned about the sushi rice
- Request freshly washed knife and cleaned/separate preparation area
- Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce/wasabi or flavor your rolls with pickled ginger
- Be wary of most sauces
- Look before you eat → ask about brown sauces and anything that looks fried or unexpected
- STOP EATING if there is an unexpected crunch when you take a bite (tempura or panko are sometimes added for a special touch by the chef)
*Refers to commonly-used ingredients only. Gluten contamination is ALWAYS a risk when dining out. Ask about food preparation and anything not made from scratch. Communicate your concerns with your server and consider using a dining card.