By Jin Sook Sakai, Bastyr University Dietetic Intern
Many cuisines from around the world include delicious gluten-free dishes. If you’re an adventurous gluten-free foodie, exploring these options can make life much more exciting. 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. 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.
Staples of Japanese cuisine include white rice, soybeans, fish, and seafood. The basic elements of a Japanese meal consist of rice (gohan), soup, salad, a protein source, a mixed protein and vegetable dish, and pickled vegetables (tsukemono). The foundation to creating these dishes involves the use of specific ingredients or “cupboard essentials” that are important to have on hand. These include:
- Soy sauce and/or tamari
- 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
There are certain Japanese ingredients and food products that gluten-free eaters need to be careful of. The following list includes foods to watch out for and their possible alternatives:
Soy sauce (shoyu) is a condiment that traditionally contains wheat. Use a gluten-free version, or tamari instead. Tamari and soy sauce are similar, but not exactly the same. Both are made from soybeans, but traditionally soy sauce also contains wheat, while tamari does not. Their origins are different too – tamari is originally Japanese, while soy sauce originated in China. Experiment with gluten-free soy sauces and tamari to find out which is more to your taste.
Miso paste is an important staple made by fermenting soy beans with salt and koji (cultured grains such as barley or rice). Versions made with barley must be avoided.
Udon, somen, and ramen noodles are made with wheat flour. Use soba noodles instead; however, make sure to read the ingredients label on soba products because some are made from a mixture of buckwheat and wheat. Choose only those made with 100% buckwheat.
Barley tea (mugicha) is very popular in summer as an iced tea beverage, and is commonly served alongside water in restaurants. Opt for green tea (ocha) for a traditional gluten-free beverage.
Deep-fried foods such as fried vegetables (tempura) and Japanese fried chicken (karaage). If eating out, avoid deep-fried products because panko breadcrumbs are typically used in the batter and the oil used to deep fry could contain gluten, as well. However, gluten-free breadcrumbs are now available in grocery stores, if you would like to make your own Japanese deep-fried foods.
Another identifying 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 are high in calcium and iron. The Japanese diet is also filled with plenty of healthy alternatives to meat: fish offers high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D; and soy and other beans provide a good source of fiber and protein. Japanese meals are often served in multiple, small dishes which allows for controlled portion sizes and caloric control. Desserts are often eaten with green tea, which provides antioxidants, and are typically low in fat and sugar. 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) are typical desserts served after a meal.
Fresh Cucumber, Wakame, & Onion Salad
Original recipe by Jin Sook Sakai
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
¼ cup dried wakame seaweed
3 Persian (or common, English) 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
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.
Place the sliced cucumbers in a medium-sized bowl and gently squeeze out the water from the cucumbers. Drain excess water from the bowl.
Add the wakame and sliced onions to the bowl of cucumbers.
Add soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and sesame seeds to the vegetables and mix well.