Japanese Cuisine When You’re Eating Gluten-Free

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Many cuisines from around the world have delicious gluten-free dishes including Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, and Indian. If you’re an adventurous gluten-free foodie, exploring these options can make eating more exciting and pleasurable.  


Staples of Japanese cuisine include white rice, soybeans, fish, and seafood. A Japanese meal typically consists of rice (gohan), soup, salad, a protein source, a mixed protein and vegetable dish, and pickled vegetables (tsukemono). When preparing Japanese food at home, there are some basic “cupboard essentials” that are important to have on hand including: 

  • Soy sauce  
  • Miso paste   
  • Rice wine (mirin) – lower in alcohol and higher sugar content than other wines  
  • Rice vinegar  
  • Bonito flakes (katsuobushi) – dried, smoked tuna  
  • Toasted sesame seeds (goma) and sesame seed oil  
  • Soybeans and soy products (tofu and miso paste)  
  • Different types of seaweed: 
    • Kombu – used to make dashi (the basic stock used in many Japanese recipes) 
    • Nori – used to make sushi rolls 
    • Wakame – usually packaged in its salted, dried form  
  • Vegetables! But some main staples:
    • Fresh and pickled ginger 
    • Daikon radish 
    • Japanese eggplant  
    • Shiitake mushrooms  
    • Scallions

Some ingredients used in Japanese cooking and food products need to be avoided if you’re eating gluten-free. The following list includes foods to double-check for gluten and some alternatives to use, if needed: 

  • Soy sauce (shoyu) is a condiment that contains wheat unless otherwise noted. Use a gluten-free version or tamari instead.  
  • Miso paste is an important staple made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (cultured grains such as barley or rice). Versions made with barley must be avoided. Search the GFCO product directory for certified gluten-free miso. 
  • Udon, somen, and ramen noodles are made with wheat flour. Use soba noodles made from buckwheat which are gluten-free. Make sure to read the ingredients on soba product labels because some are made from a mixture of buckwheat and wheat. Search the GFCO product directory for soba.  
  • Barley tea (mugicha) is very popular in summer as an iced tea beverage that is commonly served alongside water in restaurants. However, if you’re eating gluten-free, this is a tea to avoid. Choose green tea (ocha) instead to enjoy a traditional gluten-free beverage.  
  • Deep-fried foods such as fried vegetables (tempura) and Japanese fried chicken (karaage) are not traditionally gluten-free. If eating out, avoid deep-fried products because panko breadcrumbs, made from wheat, are typically used in the batter and the oil used to deep fry could contain gluten, as well. Gluten-free breadcrumbs are now widely available in grocery stores if you would like to make your own Japanese deep-fried foods. Search the GFCO product directory for panko. 

Another aspect of Japanese cuisine is the nutritional and health benefits it provides. Japanese meals always consist of vegetables that are prepared in a variety of ways, providing vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. The seaweed products, such as wakame and kombu, are high in calcium and iron. The Japanese diet is also filled with plenty of healthy alternatives to red meat, such as fish, which offers high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D; soy and other beans provide a good source of fiber and protein.  

Japanese meals are often served in multiple, small dishes, controlling both portion sizes and calorie intake. Desserts are typically low in fat and sugar and often eaten with green tea, providing antioxidants. Typical Japanese desserts include fresh fruit, such as a big slice of melon or slices of peeled apples; yokan, a thick, jellied dessert made of red bean paste, agar, and sugar; or sweetened rice cakes (mochi).  

As you can see, Japanese food can be healthy, delicious, and add some new and interesting tastes and textures to your gluten-free meals. 

Looking to make a simple Japanese side dish? See the salad recipe below. 


Written with contributions by Jin Sook Sakai, Bastyr University Dietetic Intern, 2017 

Fresh Cucumber, Wakame, and Onion Salad

Original recipe by Jin Sook Sakai  

Cook Time: 20 minutes 
Yield: 4 servings  


¼ cup dried wakame seaweed 
3 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced 
¼ onion, very thinly sliced  
2 tbsp soy sauce (gluten-free soy sauce or tamari) 
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil  
1 tsp sesame seeds  


  1. Hydrate the dried wakame seaweed by putting it in a bowl of water for 10 minutes. Drain the water and squeeze the water out from the wakame. If wakame pieces are large, chop into smaller bite-sized pieces.  
  2. Place the sliced cucumbers in a medium-sized bowl and gently squeeze out the water from the cucumbers. Drain excess water from the bowl.  
  3. Add the wakame and sliced onions to the bowl of cucumbers.  
  4. Add soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and sesame seeds to the vegetables and mix well.  

From Jin Sook Sakai: 

Born from parents of Japanese descent, I was raised with many Japanese traditions and customs, food being one of the most important. Little did I realize at the time that much of the cuisine is gluten-free! My mom’s approach to how food was prepared and served was graceful and almost magical.  

Almost every evening, my sisters and I would work seamlessly together to set up the dinner table in the traditional, standard manner. Chopsticks were placed horizontally at the edge of the table at each person’s place. A small bowl with white rice would be set on the left side, and above that would be some type of protein, such as grilled mackerel, on a rectangular plate. Directly across from the rice bowl would be a small bowl of miso soup, and a small vegetable dish, such as steamed spinach tossed with ground sesame seeds, which would be placed right above. This level of detail is an aspect of Japanese culture that is carried through food preparation from start to finish.