Welcome to my fourth post in a series on the topic of dining gluten free at ethnic restaurants. Today, I'd like to tackle Japanese cuisine, which can be a good and safe choice for gluten free diners, if you keep some key things in mind.
To begin, Japanese restaurants will typically offer several styles of food: sushi, tepanyaki-style (grilled in front of you at your table), and tempura. Here's how to ensure a safe meal:
1.) Before dining at the restaurant, call and speak with the manager or chef. Ask them about what they offer for gluten free diners. Their knowledge of gluten free ingredients -- and how they avoid cross contamination -- should be readily apparent based on their answers to your questions. If they seem confused, uninformed, or misinformed, choose another restaurant.
2.) Ask them if they have a menu listing gluten free selections. Also ask if they have gluten free tamari to use as a substitute for traditional (gluten containing) soy sauce. (If not, ask if you can bring your own.) Our family likes San-J brand gluten free tamari, which is available in many varieties. I always try to purchase the organic and low-sodium version. (Travel-sized packets of San-J's gluten free tamari are also available and great to have when dining out or traveling.)
3.) If dining tepanyaki-style (an entertaining option in which the chef prepares the meal on a hot cooktop on the table in front of you), request the meal be prepared with the gluten free tamari. We've dined at many Japanese restaurants with our kids over the years, and they love both the tepanyaki-style food -- as well as watching the antics of the chefs, who make fiery volcanoes with onions on the grill and expertly wield cleavers to chop veggies and meat.
4.) You'll need to skip the gluten-containing miso soup, which is typically served as a first course in a tepanyaki-style dinner. But you should be able to eat the salad served as the next course, providing you check on the gluten free status of the salad dressing (you can always have them leave it off or request oil and vinegar instead). The main course consists of your choice of meat, chicken, steak, shrimp, or other seafood -- or a combination of all. This is cooked according to your taste and can be prepared with the gluten free tamari -- or without any sauce or marinade, just a bit of oil. The chef will also saute vegetables and incorporate them into a fried rice to be served alongside the meat. That, too, can and should be prepared with the gluten free tamari.
5.) Avoid tempura items, as they are battered in wheat flour and fried. Same goes for anything "panko" crusted (a style of breadcrumbs containing wheat).
6.) Sushi must be approached carefully, as imitation crab meat used in California rolls contains gluten. Stick with sushi or sashimi consisting of fish and real seafood (not imitation). Also check the rice vinegar used in the sushi rice. It's typically gluten free, but some can also contain barley malt (which has gluten). Again, request gluten free tamari (or bring your own) for dipping.
7.) Avoid all ramen noodles, as they contain wheat.
8.) Avoid gyoza or "pot stickers." Although these dumplings (filled with meat and vegetables and wrapped in a wheat-based dough) originated in China, they are often found on the menus at Japanese restuarants.
9.) Beware of eel in sushi, which often contains a marinade/sauce which may be soy-based.
10.) Also beware of sushi rolls containing tempura-battered fish.
11.) Fresh roe is safe, but packaged roe can contain gluten. If you can't find out which type is served on the restaurant's sushi rolls, it's best to ask them not to include it.
12.) Commercial dashi (a broth used in various Japanese dishes) often contains gluten.
13.) Wasabi is not necessarily always gluten free...you need to check. Traditionally made wasabi from the wasabi plant is gluten free, but some pre-made (and cheaper) wasabi contains a form of starch which can be corn starch or wheat starch. Ask to see the label on the package before eating.
14.) Avoid anything served with teriyaki sauce (contains soy sauce) and question all other marinades or sauces.
Do you have a favorite Japanese restuarant where you've dined? Please share the name below -- or submit a quick review to our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, so that visitors to our site searching for gluten-free friendly restaurants in that particular area will learn about it.