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How to Safely Order Gluten-Free Sushi

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 edition of Celiac.com's Journal of Gluten-Sensitivity.

Celiac.com 10/28/2013 - Meticulously picking apart menu items is not fun or convenient while enjoying a meal. At times, sticking to a gluten-free diet tends to result in unappetizing dishes and an unsatisfying experience. With a few alterations sushi is an excellent option for gluten-free dieting. Rice, fish, and vegetables contain simple, natural ingredients, and are gluten-free.

Photo: CC--pauldesu.comConsider the following list of safe and unsafe items for gluten-free consumption as a guide when ordering sushi. Treat the rolls listed as examples in identifying unsafe ingredients and how to alter them. Remember, gluten is sneaky and hidden among unsuspicious ingredients and food items.

Before Ordering
Always notify your server of dietary restrictions before ordering. Do not be afraid to speak up or feel like you’re being a nuisance. Servers prefer taking an order once, no matter how precise, as opposed to having their customer fall ill.

Unsafe Items Commonly Found in Sushi

  • Soy sauce: Be wary of all sauces but soy sauce undoubtedly contains wheat ingredients and is not safe to eat.  Gluten-free soy sauce has increasingly become more available in restaurants. Ask your server if there is gluten-free soy sauce in the back.
  • Tempera: Fish or vegetable that has been battered and deep-fried.
  • Imitation Crab: This is not crab at all! It’s processed fish parts that have been dyed orange, combined with food starch and flavorings, then frozen. Some restaurants are starting to indicate which items contain imitation crab. RA Sushi in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida has a disclaimer listed at the bottom of their menu.
  • Eel Sauce: home-made and traditional eel sauce is made from sugar, rice wine, and soy. Each restaurant varies with added ingredients in their sauces and extra precaution should be taken before eating them.  Ask the manager to find out if the sauce is safe.
  • Imitation Crab: This is essentially fish slush that has been processed, frozen, and dyed. It is not gluten-free.
  • Teriyaki: Another unsafe wheat-containing sauce.
  • Ponzu Sauce: contains soy sauce and is not gluten-free.
  • Spicy: spicy tuna or any fish mix usually contains mayonnaise, which is not always gluten-free. Most contain unsafe sauces.
  • Wasabi: In its original form is a root taken from a rare plant primarily grown in Japan. The wasabi served in restaurants is most always horseradish, mustard, and coloring, and it can be mixed with corn starch or wheat flour.  Mustard is not always gluten-free and neither is “coloring.”

Unsafe key words:
Crab, sauce, spicy, mayo, tempura, mixed, marinated, creamy, soy, dressing, crispy, wasabi.

Safe Ingredients Commonly Found in Sushi

  • Lobok: A Chinese radish that is used when a recipe calls for Daikon radish. Unless fried or cooked in sauce, this is a safe item.
  • Masago/Tobiko: These are the little eggs on top of the sushi. Masago is the inexpensive rendition of tobiko. Masago is usually dyed to give a more appealing appearance and should be used as a garnish rather than the main ingredient of the roll. Some versions of this can contain soy sauce, so avoid it if you are not sure.
  • Sushi Rice is gluten-free. It is up to the discretion of the individual with the intolerance whether or not to consume grains. Some feel fine after eating white rice while others do not.
  • Fish: that has NOT been covered in sauce or has been fried is safe.
  • King Crab: NOT imitation crab.
  • Nori: Another name for seaweed paper and is gluten-free.
  • Vegetables: sushi is usually prepared with avocados, cucumbers, carrots, and other vegetables. Be certain no contamination has occurred from unsafe sauces.

Sample Rolls
The Rainbow and California Rolls are tasty go-to options. A rainbow Roll is a California roll with sashimi (raw fish) on top. These traditional rolls are gluten-free with a few modifications:
A selection of fish, usually halibut, tuna, salmon, and yellowtail are placed on top of the roll. The inside of the roll contains imitation crab, which needs to be replaced. Ask your server to swap the crab out for avocado. For a California roll, swap the crab out for a piece of fish to your liking.

RA Sushi lists a “King Crab Roll” on their menu. It contains: king crab mix, cucumber, avocado rolled and topped with king crab; served with an Asian Pesto sauce. The king crab mix needs to be removed. Ask the server if the mix could be replaced with plain king crab- not imitation and not mixed with any mayonnaise, sauce, etc. The king crab on top needs to be confirmed that it is whole king crab. Replace the Asian pesto sauce with a bit of gluten-free soy sauce. If none is available, squeeze a bit of lemon on the roll for flavor.

Also, stick with simple rolls such as the tuna and vegetarian rolls. Always double check to make sure there are no added ingredients! For instance, RA sushi added wasabi in their tuna roll. Ask the server to add tuna to your vegetable roll for some extra sustenance.

Get Creative
Order some kiwi on the side and place it on top of your roll. This adds sweetness and texture and is completely safe. There is no end to the alterations you can make with sushi. Learn how to make sushi and create renditions of your favorite recipes at home as well!

Sources:

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32 Responses:

 
Kathryn
Rating: ratingfullratingfullratingfullratingemptyratingempty Unrated
said this on
28 Oct 2013 2:46:55 PM PST
When researching Masago/Tobiko, I found that most of the time they are packaged with soy sauce and are thus, not gluten free.

 
Elizabeth
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said this on
31 Oct 2013 12:18:14 PM PST
It wasn't mentioned that sushi rice can often be made with wheat-based vinegar versus rice vinegar. It's imperative to ask what kind of vinegar they use. The higher-end sushi places use rice vinegar.

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
04 Nov 2013 3:49:08 PM PST
But the grain vinegar would be distilled, which does remove all gluten.

 
L. Roller
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said this on
04 Nov 2013 6:52:33 AM PST
Thanks for the info, Lauren! I love sushi, but I frequently feel insecure about all of the sauces, so your article is very helpful. I've started carrying little gluten-free soy sauce packets in my purse so that I don't have to miss out.

 
Gluten Free G
Rating: ratingfullratingfullratingfullratingemptyratingempty Unrated
said this on
04 Nov 2013 7:25:48 AM PST
What about the vinegar in this sushi sticky rice??? It's often gluten unless you are at a high end restaurant. Please share your thoughts?

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
04 Nov 2013 2:57:45 PM PST
They use rice vinegar.

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
04 Nov 2013 2:57:53 PM PST
They use rice vinegar.

 
Melissa
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said this on
04 Nov 2013 1:55:40 PM PST
I have been told by two different sushi restaurants that tobiko is not GF, because it can be marinated in soy sauce. I looked at the bulk container in a restaurant once, and sure enough, soy sauce was listed in the ingredients. Not all tobiko is unsafe, but most is.

 
Michael Bradham
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said this on
04 Nov 2013 5:08:58 PM PST
Thank you

 
Kassia
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said this on
05 Nov 2013 9:39:29 PM PST
I am worried that California rolls are being listed as safe (with modifications). If someone is not reading closely, they will be in trouble. California rolls, by definition -- unless you are visiting a high-end sushi joint -- contain imitation crab. Better to avoid all around.

The safest sushi, based on my experience, is fish and rice only (bring your own GF soy sauce if you require that extra salty flavor). Make sure there is no "wasabi" (unless you want to check all ingredients), and specify that you want everything without sauce. Some items, such as seared tuna, have a light sauce that often has soy sauce as a base.

I eat a lot of sushi, and this article worries me because an inexperienced GF diner might be confused. Sushi is a great gluten-free option, but you still have to be careful. Even when it comes to vinegar, though I've never encountered a sushi joint that uses anything but rice vinegar...anything else adds too heavy a flavor.

 
asdf
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said this on
05 Nov 2013 10:51:51 PM PST
Gluten/wheat is used in cheaper "rice vinegar" for sushi because it makes the rice stickier without the effort put in by higher end establishments. My gluten specialist doctor alerted me to this after my then toddler and I became routinely enough sick (instant brain fog) after eating nigiri sushi. sure enough, 90% of the sushi places around me used cheaper rice vinegar that listed a wheat component as an ingredient. When I found one restaurant and one grocery store that used GF rice vinegar, we became incredibly loyal customers.

 
asdf
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said this on
05 Nov 2013 10:53:43 PM PST
Note: most sushi chefs and wait staff have no idea if their rice vinegar is gluten-free. They just answer that it is because they never realized such a thing. You MUST ask to read the label.

 
Kelly

said this on
07 Nov 2013 7:37:41 PM PST
Some chefs will add soy sauce to Ikura (salmon roe); some don't. It typically comes as is. Also, tobiko (the tiny fish roe) can also have added soy sauce. You should ask your chef to show you the packaging. Eel is often packed in a sweet brown sauce, which will contain soy sauce. I always tell the chef "no brown sauce".

 
Danielle
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said this on
27 Nov 2013 9:14:20 PM PST
Thank you Lauren! This was extremely helpful and so much I didn't know!

 
Terry
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said this on
28 Nov 2013 8:53:58 AM PST
Wow such great information, thank you! I can't wait to eat some sushi.

 
Teresa
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said this on
05 Dec 2013 5:35:19 PM PST
My sushi chef gave me a great guide to gluten-free and warned me that tobiko is manufactured using soy sauce. Therefore, all those lovely California rolls are off the list.

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
11 Dec 2013 11:07:27 AM PST
I doubt tobiko contains gluten--if they used soy sauce they would likely turn brown. In any case, many fake crab does contain wheat, and this is a much better reason to avoid California rolls.

 
pascal
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said this on
27 Feb 2014 2:00:48 PM PST
We can't eat ANYTHING!

 
Emily
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said this on
14 Mar 2014 2:31:38 PM PST
What about tofu, if it's not marinated and there is no soy sauce present??

 
KAH1165
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said this on
08 May 2014 12:28:36 PM PST
OMG, why even bother with sushi? I'm so disappointed to learn all of this, as the sauces and variety of rolls are what I want when I have sushi. I am now afraid to even go out for sushi ever again. I hate being GF!

 
Andrea
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said this on
07 May 2015 6:54:27 AM PST
I promise it really isn't so bad. I bring my own soy sauce when I go. I often get avocado rolls, mango, asparagus, salmon, tuna, seaweed salad, edamame, Philadelphia, and any mix or variety of those. Also, any of the sashimi (raw fish) options. There are so many options in most restaurants.

 
Chrystal
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said this on
25 Jun 2015 6:27:47 PM PST
FYI- Almost always, the seaweed salad has been marinated in soy sauce (in the box it comes delivered in.)

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
26 Jun 2015 10:20:43 AM PST
Where do you get this info? This is not the case.

 
Marty
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said this on
23 Jun 2015 11:42:58 AM PST
I was diagnosed last week. It stinks. Can't eat out. On top of things, I eat Kosher so that is even more restrictive.

 
kelvin
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said this on
21 Aug 2014 1:11:27 PM PST
Thank you so much for your research.

 
Ben
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said this on
10 Dec 2014 6:19:29 PM PST
Secret to eating Sushi as a Celiac:
I bought a sushi making kit & rice cooker on Amazon.
I buy sushi grade salmon and tuna from Wegmans (in blocks)
I use imitation crab from a company called TransOcean, it IS gluten-free and made in a gluten-free facility.
I use Kikkoman Rice vinegar (gluten-free)
I use certified gluten free sushi rice
I use Tamari certified gluten-free soy sauce.
Although all these items cost some money up front - after you have made sushi at home once or twice, it is far cheaper than going to a restaurant. It is a lot of fun and amazingly easy. I even feel my Sushi tastes better than many restaurants!!
Enjoy!!

 
Kirsten
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said this on
10 Mar 2015 8:09:21 AM PST
Yes, there is wheat in the rice, by way of the rice vinegar. I tried to buy some gluten and soy free rice vinegar on line...very difficult, and you know the restaurants are buying the cheap stuff. If you order anything containing fake crab, like a California roll, you are getting soy and gluten via wheat, which is added to the crab to make it feel more in texture like real crab. I am playing it safe and not relying on wait staff at restaurants, or thinking I am ok bringing in my tamari. The paleo diet, which eliminates all processed foods, and grains, avoids any cross contamination, etc. Really the safest way to go. I've done it for two years, and have felt wonderful. All illness and allergies, fibermyalgia etc. has disappeared.

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
11 Mar 2015 9:48:55 AM PST
Rice vinegar doe snot contain wheat.

 
Christina

said this on
01 Jul 2015 12:21:52 PM PST
What about wheat starch, it is used in sushi rice and some imitation products?

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
02 Jul 2015 8:05:50 AM PST
Wheat starch isn't used in sushi rice ever. They use a special rice and add rice vinegar.

 
Karen
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said this on
20 Sep 2015 7:53:57 AM PST
Also, the SEAWEED WRAP used to wrap the sushi may contain wheat. Make sure you ask.....an educated sushi restaurant will know this.

 
Alex
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said this on
22 Jul 2016 7:32:57 PM PST
This article is helpful as I am an inexperienced gluten-free dieter, but I need to put in a word of warning. I went to a sushi restaurant today and they said that they use a flour containing binder to hold the sushi rice together. Sushimi that isn't marinated is definitely safe though.




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