As evidenced by our review of Kobe earlier this week (not to mention past reviews of Bull & Buddha and Hapa), we love sushi... and Japanese cuisine... and much Asian cuisine in general. Which is why, for example, we have a recipe for gluten-free tempura in our cookbook Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, and why we're over the moon for Laura Russell's fabulous The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen.
But if our most recent trip to Kobe serves as an example, safely dining out at a Japanese restaurant often requires two important elements: 1) knowledgeably ordering and 2) vigilantly double-checking your order when it arrives at the table before you ever take a bite.
Much of Japanese cuisine—based on rice and fresh fish—is naturally gluten-free, or can be prepared as such. But there are a number of places where wheat/gluten can hide ... some obvious, and some much more subtle.
While you can give your server the standard line about "no wheat, barley, and rye..." or hand over a wallet-sized dining card that can be delivered to the kitchen, to a large degree you're trusting that they know how "gluten-free" and "no wheat" translates in their kitchen. Sometimes, things get lost in that translation. Plus, there can exist a more literal language barrier between you and the servers and/or kitchen staff.
I learned in high school sports long ago the mantra "A good defense is the best offense." That's sound advice when it comes to safely dining out. Be your own best advocate; have a good defense. That starts with knowing the cuisine—where gluten might hide, how to order dishes, and what to look for when your food arrives at the table.
Here's what you need to know, with some handy mnemonic devices to help you remember:
Oh Boy, Hold the Soy
"Regular" soy sauce is one of the most common places to find wheat/gluten in Japanese cuisine, for the simple reason that "soy" sauce is actually a combination of soy and wheat. Ask for tamari wheat-free/gluten-free soy sauce, or bring your own from home (either in a small bottle or in individual packets).
Be suspicious of any sauces, especially dark sauces that are likely to contain regular soy sauce. This includes teriyaki, ponzu shoyu (sometimes called simply ponzu), and eel sauce. The one exception is the orange spicy sauce often used on sushi, such as in a spicy tuna roll. It's typically little more than mayo and Sriracha chili sauce, and so is gluten-free.
Panko, No Thank You!
Despite occasional rumors to the contrary, panko bread crumbs are not gluten-free. Panko is a Japanese bread crumb made from wheat. Avoid it.
If the menu includes noodle bowls with noodles such as soba or udon, hold on. Even if the menu specifies buckwheat noodles, it's likely that they're actually made from a blend of buckwheat and wheat. Double (or even triple check) that the noodles are 100% buckwheat (pretty rare to find at a restaurant) before ordering. If they are 100% buckwheat, then start asking questions about the water/broth the noodles are boiled in.
Tempura dishes are usually shrimp or vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried. In addition, tempura "crunchies" are sometimes added inside or on top of sushi rolls for texture. Some Japanese restaurants use rice flour for their tempura batter, but many use wheat flour. Double check before ordering. And if they do use gluten-free rice flour, confirm whether or not the fryer is shared with gluten-ous foods (especially if you have celiac disease or are otherwise very sensitive).
Accept No Imitations
Imitation crab meat in your California roll? Many (though not all) imitation crab meats contain wheat as an ingredient. Stay safe and avoid the imitation stuff. Request real crab meat (which will often raise the price of the sushi) or substitute shrimp. Going the shrimp route can be a good option, because it gives you an immediate visual cue that they prepared the roll according to your specifications. Imitation and real crab meat may look similar in a sushi roll, and you won't know until you've eaten the first roll whether or not it's correct, and by then it's too late.
Dump the Dumplings
No matter what they're called on the menu—dumplings, gyoza, pot stickers, whatever—they're almost certainly prepared with a wheat flour dough. Skip 'em.
With these seven "caution" zones in Japanese cuisine, you're now equipped to knowledgeably and confidently order gluten-free food the next time you're out. There's always a risk of cross-contamination when you're talking about a restaurant kitchen, but if you keep these tips in mind, you've stacked the odds heavily in your favor. Sushi, anyone?