Korean barbecue, also known as KBBQ, refers to a variety of grilled meat dishes that are prepared at the diner’s table. Typical Korean BBQ meats include beef short ribs, pork belly, and chicken. These meats are grilled over a gas or charcoal grill built right into the table. KBBQ is a popular dining experience in Korean restaurants around the world.
However, for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten can cause serious health issues. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Fortunately, most Korean BBQ meats are naturally gluten-free. But the marinades and side dishes pose some concerns. With careful choices and preparation, people who are gluten-free can enjoy the delicious experience of Korean BBQ.
Is Meat Gluten-Free?
The good news is that most meats are naturally gluten-free. Beef, pork, chicken, turkey and most types of seafood do not contain any gluten. However, meats can become contaminated with gluten during processing or marinating.
Meat is most likely to contain gluten if a marinade contains soy sauce or other gluten ingredients. Breading on fried meats may also contain gluten. Unmarinated, unbreaded cuts of beef, pork and chicken avoid this risk.
When dining at a Korean BBQ restaurant, look for cuts of meat labeled as “plain.” This indicates the meat has no marinade that could potentially contain gluten. Steer clear of meats labeled “marinated” or ask about the ingredients in the marinade. Also avoid heavily breaded meats like bulgogi.
If cooking Korean BBQ at home, use plain meat and make sure to avoid marinades that contain soy sauce or other gluten ingredients. Check the labels of sauces and pastes for wheat. Use oil, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and other clean whole ingredients to flavor the meat.
Watch Out for Marinades and Sauces
While the meats may be gluten-free, the marinades and dipping sauces that accompany Korean BBQ are potential sources of gluten.
The marinades used to flavor popular Korean BBQ meats often contain soy sauce, which is made from wheat. Other common marinade ingredients like oyster sauce and hoisin sauce also frequently contain gluten.
Restaurants may offer several dipping sauce options alongside the grill. These sauces enhance the flavor of the grilled meats. Examples include:
- Gochujang – Spicy fermented red pepper paste
- Ssamjang – Soybean paste with red pepper and spices
- Doenjang – Fermented soybean paste
- Vinegar dip – Vinegar, soy sauce, red pepper flakes
While gochujang is traditionally made from chili peppers without gluten ingredients, some commercial brands add wheat. Doenjang is made from fermented soybeans so it does not contain gluten, but ssamjang typically contains soy sauce. Vinegar dip also usually contains soy sauce.
To avoid gluten, opt for plain meat without marinade. Ask for gochujang that is labeled gluten-free. Avoid pre-made marinades and dipping sauces provided by the restaurant. Bring your own tamari or coconut aminos and gluten-free spices and sauces to add flavor.
Rice and Lettuce Wraps May Contain Gluten
Part of the fun of Korean BBQ is wrapping pieces of grilled meat in lettuce leaves or rice with ssamjang sauce. Unfortunately, these accompaniments pose a gluten risk.
Rice is naturally gluten-free. But restaurants often make flavored rice dishes by adding ingredients like soy sauce. Request plain white rice or verify the rice is unseasoned. Brown rice is also less likely to be contaminated or mixed with gluten sources.
Lettuce wraps seem safe, but restaurants sometimes sprinkle wheat flour or batter on the lettuce leaves before grilling. Stick to plain lettuce leaves and avoid any with an extra crispy coating. Romaine, butter lettuce and iceberg lettuce all make good wrap options.
Bring your own gluten-free tamari as a substitute for ssamjang dipping sauce provided by the restaurant. Other gluten-free wraps like collard greens, cabbage leaves and shaved zucchini work well too.
Side Dishes and Banchan May Contain Gluten
No Korean grill experience is complete without the banchan, or small shared side dishes that accompany the meal. These often include kimchi, japchae noodles, fish cakes and seasoned vegetables.
While kimchi and some vegetables may be naturally gluten-free, the seasonings they are cooked with may add gluten. Japchae noodles contain wheat flour. Fish cakes and fried items are often battered with wheat flour.
Request the ingredients lists for all side dishes and banchan when ordering. Opt for naturally gluten-free options like:
- Plain steamed vegetables
- Seaweed salad
- Plain cucumber salad
Avoid seasoned items that may have hidden gluten like japchae noodles, fish cakes and tempura vegetables. Bring your own gluten-free tamari for dipping items like kimchi and raw vegetables.
Soups and Stews May Contain Gluten
Hearty soups and stews often begin a Korean barbecue meal. While broth-based soups are typically gluten-free, flour, soy sauce and noodles can find their way into soups.
Watch out for common soup ingredients like:
- Flour-thickened broths like doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew)
- Noodles in soups like mandu guk (dumpling soup)
- Soy sauce flavoring
Stick to gluten-free broth soups like:
- Kimchi jjigae – Kimchi stew
- Soeundubu jjigae – Spicy soft tofu stew
- Yukgaejang – Shredded beef soup
- Miyeok guk – Seaweed soup
Ask if the broth is thickened with gluten-containing flour or seasoned with soy sauce. Avoid soups that contain noodles or dumplings which likely have wheat flour.
Beverages May Contain Gluten
Korean restaurants often serve barley tea, rice wine and beer with barbecue. Since beer is made from wheat and barley, it contains gluten. Rice wine can also contain gluten if wheat is used in the fermentation process. Barley tea is not safe for gluten-free diets.
Instead, hydrate with water, soda water, rice milk or a Korean fruit juice like yuja cha. Bring your own gluten-free beer if you want to drink beer with your barbecue. Soju is a popular gluten-free Korean spirit made from rice, although some brands add wheat so always check.
How to Order Gluten-Free at a Korean BBQ Restaurant
Eating gluten-free at a Korean barbecue restaurant may seem tricky, but a few simple steps can ensure your meal is safe:
- Call ahead to notify the restaurant of your gluten allergy
- Request gluten-free soy sauce or bring your own tamari
- Order plain, unmarinated grilled meats
- Ask for rice and lettuce wraps with no seasoning
- Verify side dishes and banchan are gluten-free
- Stick to naturally gluten-free soups and stews
- Avoid gluten-containing beverages
Being informed about hidden gluten ingredients helps you ask the right questions. Politely ask your server about preparation methods and ingredients. Many Korean restaurants can accommodate gluten-free diners with advanced notice.
Gluten-Free Korean BBQ Recipes
Cooking authentic Korean barbecue at home is a gluten-free friendly option. Here are some recipe ideas:
- Bulgogi – Thinly sliced grilled beef
- Galbi – Grilled short ribs
- Samgyeopsal – Grilled pork belly
- Dak galbi – Spicy chicken
- Ojingeo gui – Grilled squid
Use tamari instead of soy sauce for the meat marinade. Or marinate meats in a blend of sesame oil, garlic, ginger, scallions, rice wine vinegar and chili paste.
- Sauteed spinach with sesame oil and garlic
- Steamed broccoli
- Cucumber salad
- Edamame sprinkled with sea salt
- Kimchi jjigae – Use chicken broth and add kimchi, tofu, mushrooms, green onions and sesame oil
- Yukejang – Shredded beef soup with garlic, sesame oil and zucchini noodles
- Butter lettuce leaves
- Romaine lettuce
- Shaved zucchini ribbons
- Shiitake mushroom caps
- Gochujang (gluten-free brand)
- Gluten-free tamari
- Tahini and toasted sesame oil
- Paleo mayo with sriracha
Be creative and use fresh ingredients to replicate your favorite Korean BBQ meal at home.
Popular Korean Barbecue Restaurants with Gluten-Free Options
Many popular Korean barbecue restaurant chains offer gluten-free menus or are accustomed to accommodating gluten-free diners. Here are some good options:
Gen Korean BBQ House
With locations across Southern California, Gen Korean BBQ offers gluten-free menu items. Meat is grilled on dedicated gluten-free areas of the grill. They have gluten-free soy sauce and provide a detailed allergen menu.
This Korean BBQ franchise based in Maryland and Virginia lists gluten-free dishes like unmarinated meats, kimchi stew and steamed rice on their menu. They also avoid cross-contamination when preparing gluten-free orders.
Jongro BBQ is a Korean grill chain in California. They have a gluten intolerance menu featuring grilled meats, lettuce wraps and sides marked with gluten-free labels. The meats are not marinated.
While not a Korean-exclusive eatery, this restaurant based in Chicago’s River North neighborhood offers a gluten-free Korean barbecue pizza. It has kimchi, Kalbi beef short ribs, mozzarella and Granny Smith apples.
Tips for Following a Gluten-Free Diet at Korean BBQ Restaurants
Eating gluten-free at a Korean BBQ restaurant requires vigilance, but you can enjoy the experience with these tips:
- Stick to plain grilled meats, lettuce wraps and rice
- Bring your own gluten-free tamari and condiments
- Ask about ingredients in marinades, dipping sauces and side dishes
- politely speak with the staff about gluten cross-contamination
- Call ahead to ask the restaurant about gluten-free prep
- Suggest cooking your meat first before others at the table
- Order broth-based soups and avoid noodles, dumplings, etc
- Have backup snacks like fruit and nuts in case you can’t eat much
- Thank the staff for helping you customize your gluten-free meal
With the right substitutions and precautions, those avoiding gluten can savor the smoky grilled flavors of Korean barbecue. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make special requests to ensure your food is safe.
Gluten-Free Substitutions for Common Korean BBQ Ingredients
Many classic Korean barbecue ingredients contain gluten, but there are easy substitutions to recreate the flavors:
|Soy Sauce||Tamari, Liquid Aminos|
|Oyster Sauce||Mushroom sauce|
|Hoisin Sauce||Gluten-free hoisin|
|Flour||Rice flour, tapioca flour|
|Wheat Noodles||Rice noodles, zucchini noodles|
|Barley Tea||Chrysanthemum tea, roasted rice tea|
With some adjustments, you can recreate gluten-free Korean barbecue flavors. Use alternative ingredients and read all labels carefully.
Eating Gluten-Free at a Korean BBQ Birthday Party
If you are celebrating at a Korean BBQ restaurant, having a gluten allergy doesn’t have to prevent you from joining in the fun. Here are tips to eat gluten-free at a Korean BBQ birthday party:
- Look over the restaurant’s website and menu in advance
- Call the restaurant to explain your dietary needs beforehand
- Offer to bring your own gluten-free meats and sides to share
- Stick to grilled plain meats, rice and vegetable sides
- Politely pass on the gluten-filled banchan and noodles
- Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce, soup base and wraps
- Suggest grilling your gluten-free meat separately
- Order a naturally gluten-free soup like kimchi jjigae
- Offer to bring a special gluten-free dessert to enjoy
With planning and assertive requests, you can adapt the party menu. Focus on enjoying time with friends rather than the food restrictions.
Traveling Gluten-Free in Korea
Venturing to Korea itself offers an immersive experience into Korean cuisine. Those avoiding gluten may wonder if it’s possible to travel in Korea with dietary restrictions. The good news is that with the rising popularity of KBBQ globally, gluten-free dining options are increasing in Korea as well.
Here are some tips for traveling gluten-free in Korea:
- Learn key phrases in Korean like “bread/no wheat” and “I have a wheat allergy”
- Stay at hotels or guesthouses with kitchens to prepare your own food
- Visit local markets to shop for naturally gluten-free ingredients
- Research gluten-free restaurants on apps like Find Me Gluten Free
- Always keep gluten-free snacks on hand like fruit and rice cakes
- Present a translated gluten-free card when dining out
- Stick to grilled meats and rice dishes at BBQ restaurants
- Order hoe (raw fish) or jeon (savory pancakes) which are often gluten-free
While gluten-free dining is less common in Korea than Western countries, resources exist to help travelers avoid gluten. With knowledge of the cuisine and language skills, you can find gluten-free meal options.
Traditional Korean barbecue features several gluten-containing ingredients. But with wise menu choices and substitutions, those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance can savor the smoky grilled flavors safely. Opt for unmarinated meats, bring your own special sauces and thoroughly check all sides and banchan for hidden gluten. With planning and good communication, you can grill an amazing gluten-free Korean feast to enjoy.