Is sushi gluten free?

Is sushi gluten free?

Is sushi gluten free? 

Slowly but surely, Japanese food has fast taken off as a huge food fashion trend for Brits eating out. For many of us, chains such as Yo Sushi have swayed us from a reluctance to eat raw fish, to seeing deep fried shrimp tempura as a Saturday night delicacy. Or a blue Monday deal, for the particularly savvy amongst us. 

With so many different dishes and ingredients, it can be hard to know what’s safe to have as a gluten-free eater. Cue this guide on all foods Japanese.

Wooden chopsticks resting on a ceramic bowl with blue flower pattern

I’m guessing most of you are twenty-somethings with no patience for skimming lengthy introductions, so let’s cut straight to the chase. Is sushi safe as part of a gluten free diet? Although I can’t give you a clear-cut yes or no, there are a few initial quick answers to this question.

Firstly – eat all the sashimi you want

Plain fish is gluten free, which means if nothing else, you’re safe to stick to sashimi. Just be aware of the next point when it comes to what you dip your fish in, because:

Secondly – soy sauce is a minefield

Many brands of soy sauce sold in the UK and US contain added wheat, and therefore gluten. You can check this on the back of the label when you buy ready-made packs of sushi, but in restaurants you’ll need to ask your server each time you go. In this vein, it would be worth calling ahead or bringing a sachet of your own soy sauce from home when you go out to eat at a sushi bar. That is, unless you’re a bit on the strange side and prefer eating your sashimi on its own. No one’s stopping you.

vegetable maki rolls next to a dish of soy sauce

Thirdly: avoid pre-packaged sushi

Freshly made sushi that you might find in a restaurant is far less likely to contain any added gluten – you should be aware that many supermarket packs of seemingly harmless maki or nigiri have added wheat to them. While wheat isn’t a standard ingredient in traditional sushi, it’s used as a cheap bulking ingredient, particularly in poor quality, mass-produced supermarket ingredients. Check the back of the packaging for any allergens in bold.

sushi plate with avocado rolls and chopsticks

Fourthly: if you’re severely gluten-intolerant, it’s easier to skip the whole thing

Gluten content across all other sushi dishes varies wildly between restaurants and countries, meaning it can be a headache to find out what’s truly gluten free in your local sushi bar. Some examples:

  1. While rice itself is gluten free, some restaurants might mix it with wheat-contaminated rice vinegar to make it sticky.
  2. Other ingredients like crab meat is sometimes swapped for a cheap fake made from mashed up fish and wheat flour. This issue is particularly rife in the US. 
  3. Cross-contamination can be difficult to avoid, as gluten dishes like tempura are being prepared in the same kitchens as your basic sashimi

If, however, your gluten-intolerance is limited to non-life-threatening symptoms like IBS or brain fog, and you’re willing to accept the risk of eating a small amount of gluten, good news – you don’t have to give up your occasional beloved sushi dinners. 

What is sushi?

Sushi has become a huge western culture hit over the last decade. No longer a quirky Japanese cuisine – (ew, you mean you actually eat raw fish?!) – it has taken the supermarket and restaurant scene by storm. Sushi – or for the purposes of this explanation, any food that you can get at a sushi/Japanese restaurant – can be broadly broken down into the following categories:

  • Sashimi
  • Maki (rolls and handrolls)
  • Tempura
  • Ramen
  • Curry
Yo sushi green plate of vegetarian maki rolls

Gluten-free sushi options

Sashimi – As a rule, this is the only truly ‘safe’ form of sushi. The actual definition of sashimi is fresh fish (and sometimes other meat) served as it is, in thin slices. Most people will then dip it in soy sauce, so be aware that this doesn’t contain any gluten. 

We then come to other traditional sushi, which uses basic ingredients that should be gluten free – in theory. These are dishes solely made up of fish, vegetables and rice:

  • Maki rolls – layers of fish, vegetables, rice and seaweed. There are four main types of maki: osomaki,  futomaki, uramaki and temaki. While they all have slight differences in shape and structure, they tend to all be made up of these same base gluten-free ingredients
  • Nigiri – hand-shaped rice base topped with a slice of fish or rolled omelette. A small amount of wasabi is sometimes used to affix the topping to the rice, which is something you need to be aware of
bowl of colourful salmon and tuna sashimi slices

Caveats to watch out for

Sticky rice – as previously touched on, some places might contaminate the rice with vinegar or rice wine that has added wheat in. You can ask the server about this, but there is always a chance that miscommunication will happen and you’ll end up ingesting some gluten there.

Wasabi – quality restaurants, particularly outside of the US, will serve genuine wasabi made from horseradish. However, in some cases, and particularly across places in America, a cheap version of wasabi is used made with mustard and wheat flour. You can easily avoid wasabi when ordering maki and sashimi, but be aware that it sometimes mixed with nigiri. 

Sauces and spicy rolls – spicy tuna and other sauces such as teriyaki, hoisin, ponzu and mayonnaise may contain added gluten. Again, ask the server but if you want to be really safe, it’s best to avoid them completely.  

Slate dish of california sushi rolls topped with red salmon eggs

Dishes to avoid when gluten-free

Probably the easiest advice to bear in mind – these are dishes that you need to straight up avoid, as they contain hefty amounts of gluten in nearly all cases. 

  1. Ramen, soba and other noodle-based dishes – it’s virtually impossible to avoid gluten here. It’ll either be in the noodles, broth, or in toppings that have been fried in oil used for other wheat products. As a side note, whilst soba noodles are traditionally made from gluten-free buckwheat flour, this isn’t always the case.
  2. Tempura – this is essentially battered, deep-fried vegetables and fish. Essentially a whole plate of nope for gluten intolerance.
  3. Katsu – this is the breaded and deep fried meat cuts that you can find on top of curries. The batter uses both wheat flour and breadcrumbs. Common ones include chicken katsu and tonkatsu (pork cutlets)
bowl of ramen with pork and half a boiled egg

Eating gluten free & dairy free at Yo! Sushi

Yo! was the place that I (and many other culturally-challenged Brits) popped their metaphorical sushi cherry. It is influenced enough by Western eating so as not to be too frightening to people who baulk at the idea of anything not battered and deep fried.

Sadly, the vast majority of their menu contains gluten, including many of their rolls that you might have assumed would be okay. You can view their full list of allergens here, but I’ve included a main summary below:

What to avoid

  • All large rolls, with the exception of the tuna mayo roll and the small maki plates
  • Certain types of nigiri: aburi, inari, aubergine and panko
  • All forms of katsu
  • The entire Street Food menu – including gyoza, spicy pepper squid, takoyaki, popcorn shrimp and burgers
  • All fried rice, yakisoba and teriyaki dishes
  • Dorayaki and strawberry mochi
fried shrimp tempura plate

Gluten-free Yo! dishes

  • Maki dishes, including avocado, salmon, tuna and mixed 
  • Specific nigiri: salmon, avocado, seared beef, tuna
  • All sashimi dishes, apart from the ponzu salsa sashimi
  • The salmon & avocado temaki hand roll
  • The tuna mayo roll
  • Edamame
  • Several desserts, including: the brownie, chocolate mochi, chocolate pot, fruit plate and cheesecake

Soy sauce

I have seen and read mixed things on the subject of the soy sauce at Yo! Sushi, so it’s definitely worth asking the staff when you visit whether it contains added wheat, and potentially bringing some of your own from home in case. 

nigiri sushi rolls on a black slate

Thus concludes this rather hefty guide on the complicated world of gluten free sushi. Like most times when it comes to avoiding gluten, the rules are rarely straight forward and will inevitably involve a lot of investigation on your part. 

Of course, one way to skip all the confusion and control the ingredients used by making your own, slightly less instagramable nigiri at home. I’ll be experimenting with some simplified recipes over the coming months, so watch this space. 

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