Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people adopting them for health or personal reasons. For those avoiding gluten, one cuisine that seems like it would be a good option is Korean food. Korean dishes often feature rice, vegetables, meat, seafood, and fermented ingredients, without many obvious sources of gluten. But is Korean food truly gluten-free overall? Let’s take a closer look.
What is gluten?
First, it helps to understand what exactly gluten is. Gluten is a group of proteins found in certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye. When flour from these grains is mixed with water, the gluten proteins form elastic strands that give breads and other baked goods their chewy texture. People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity experience inflammation and damage to the small intestine when they eat gluten. This can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain as well as issues like fatigue, headaches, anxiety, and more. The only treatment for gluten-related disorders is following a strict lifelong gluten-free diet by avoiding all foods and products containing gluten.
Common sources of gluten
Gluten is present in many staple foods in the Western diet, including bread, pasta, cookies, cake, crackers, beer, and pizza crust. It can also be found in less obvious places like soy sauce, salad dressing, stock cubes, canned soups, sauces, frozen french fries, imitation crab meat, and more. Reading ingredients carefully and looking for statements like “gluten-free” on packaging is important when following a gluten-free diet.
Gluten in Korean cuisine
Korean food relies less on wheat flour and baked goods compared to many Western cuisines. Instead, rice is a staple ingredient. Rice is naturally gluten-free, so items made solely from rice or rice flour, like ddeok (rice cakes), rice porridge, and glutinous rice balls, are fine for gluten-free diets as long as no gluten-containing ingredients have been added. Other gluten-free basics in Korean cooking include fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, and legumes like mung beans and soybeans. Fermented products like gochujang (red chili paste), doenjang (fermented soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), and kimchi are traditionally made without wheat or barley and should not contain gluten. However, checking the labels is still important, as some mass-produced versions may use ingredients that do contain gluten.
Potential sources of gluten in Korean cuisine
While many Korean dishes are naturally gluten-free, there are some potential sources of gluten to watch out for:
- Flours – Wheat flour may be used in dishes like savory pancakes (jeon), dumplings (mandu), noodles, and batter coatings.
- Soy sauce – Some soy sauces contain wheat. Check labels or ask about gluten-free brands.
- Breaded/fried foods – Breading or batter on fried chicken, tempura, etc. may contain wheat flour.
- Noodles – Wheat noodles are common. Check for 100% buckwheat (soba) or sweet potato (dangmyeon) noodles instead.
- Beef broth – Some beef bone broth/stock may be thickened with wheat flour.
- Beer – Most beers contain gluten, so avoid unless labeled gluten-free.
- Imported sauces – Oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and other imported condiments may have gluten.
Is Korean food gluten-free? The verdict
Given the above information, is Korean food generally gluten-free? The answer is that most traditional Korean dishes are naturally gluten-free or can be prepared in a gluten-free way. The main staples like rice, meat, seafood, vegetables, eggs, and kimchi are safe, as are many fermented sauces and pastes as long as no wheat has been added. For those who are extremely sensitive, requesting gluten-free soy sauce and avoiding fried items with potential wheat coating is advised. Being aware of the few Korean dishes that may contain wheat and asking questions when dining out is important too. With some minor modifications, people who are gluten-free can enjoy the spicy, flavorful cuisine of Korea.
Tips for following a gluten-free diet with Korean food
Here are some useful tips for sticking to a gluten-free diet while eating Korean food:
- Check labels on sauces, condiments, stocks, and imported foods for wheat or barley.
- Request gluten-free soy sauce or tamari.
- Ask about ingredients in marinades, batter, broths, and noodle dishes.
- Specify no wheat flour for pan-fried dishes like jeon (savory pancakes).
- Opt for plain rice or glutinous rice dishes.
- Choose rice noodles or 100% buckwheat noodles.
- Avoid breaded and fried items unless they are certified gluten-free.
- Stick to naturally gluten-free menu items like grilled meats, steamed veggies, kimchi stew (kimchi-jjigae), and bibimbap.
- Say no to the wheat flour-based dusting or coatings on some fried foods.
- Be wary of cross-contamination from fried items sharing oil.
- Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce, if desired.
Gluten-free substitutes for common Korean ingredients
Finding gluten-free replacements for typically glutenous ingredients opens up more Korean dishes you can enjoy. Here are some suggestions:
|Wheat flour||Rice flour, tapioca flour, corn starch, potato starch, arrowroot, almond flour|
|Wheat noodles||100% buckwheat noodles, rice noodles, sweet potato (dangmyeon) noodles, shirataki noodles|
|Soy sauce||Gluten-free tamari, coconut aminos|
|Beer||Gluten-free beer, wine, rice wine, broth|
Gluten-free Korean recipes
You can make many classic Korean dishes gluten-free with just a few swaps. Here are some recipe ideas you can try:
- Bibimbap – Serve over rice with tamari instead of soy sauce
- Bulgogi – Marinate beef in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pear puree
- Japchae – Use sweet potato noodles instead of wheat noodles
- Kimchi fried rice – Use tamari or coconut aminos to flavor
- Korean fried chicken – Toss chicken in arrowroot and rice flour instead of wheat flour
Soups and stews
- Kimchi jjigae – Check that kimchi and pork are gluten-free
- Miyeokguk – Seaweed soup made with beef or fish stock
- Sundubu jjigae – Spicy tofu stew uses fermented korean pepper paste
- Yukgaejang – Shredded beef soup seasoned with garlic and chili
- Kongnamul – Blanched soybean sprouts seasoned with sesame oil
- Korean spinach – Boiled and seasoned spinach
- Namul – Seasoned vegetable side dishes
- Sigumchi namul – Spinach with sesame oil, garlic, and seaweed
Gluten-free Korean groceries and substitutions
Shopping at a Korean grocery store offers many naturally gluten-free ingredients as well as some great substitutes. Here are some items to look for:
- Rice – Plain, black, or glutinous rice
- Rice flour – For gluten-free baking or coatings
- Rice noodles – In various widths
- Sweet potato noodles – Clear dangmyeon noodles
- Buckwheat noodles – Sobatamyeon noodles
- Meats – Bulgogi, galbi, pork belly
- Seafood – Fish cakes, dried anchovies, squid, octopus
- Produce – Cabbage, bok choy, Asian pears, shiitake mushrooms
- Tamari sauce – Gluten-free soy sauce substitute
- Gochujang – Check labels for wheat-free
- Doenjang – Soybean paste is gluten-free
- Sesame oil – Pure sesame oil
- Rice cakes – Tteokbokki rice cakes or injeolmi
- Teas – Barley tea is gluten-free despite the name
With so many flavorful, naturally gluten-free ingredients to choose from, those avoiding gluten can craft amazing Korean dishes at home. Explore the aisles of an Asian grocery store and discover new gluten-free foods to fuel your Korean cooking adventures.
Dining out gluten-free at Korean restaurants
If you want to experience authentic Korean cuisine without having to cook it all yourself, dining out at a Korean restaurant is a great option. Here are some tips for eating gluten-free at Korean restaurants:
- Check out the menu in advance and look for dishes centered around rice, meat, veggies, or kimchi.
- Ask your server which dishes are made with wheat flour or noodles.
- Request gluten-free soy sauce or bring your own tamari.
- Ask if ingredients like broths and marinades are thickened with wheat flour.
- Specify no wheat in fried batters or coatings.
- Ask if stews and soups are thickened with potato, arrowroot, or rice flour instead of wheat.
- Look for bibimbap made with just rice, vegetables, meat, egg, and gochujang.
- Opt for meat dishes made without marinades containing soy sauce.
- Stick to plain rice or japchae made with sweet potato noodles.
- Say no to the wheat flour batter used on Korean fried chicken.
With extra care reading menus and asking questions, you can dine at a Korean restaurant without gluten. Focus on naturally gluten-free menu items and dishes that can be modified. With the right preparations, you can still enjoy an amazing Korean meal out on the town.
Traveling to Korea gluten-free
Vacationing in South Korea offers an immersive way to enjoy Korean cuisine in its homeland. Those adhering to a gluten-free diet can still savor delicious Korean food with planning and precautions. Here are some tips for traveling to Korea gluten-free:
- Research gluten-free restaurants at your destination before you go.
- Use a translation card or app to communicate about dietary needs.
- Carry snacks like fruit and gluten-free bars in case you can’t find safe options.
- Learn key Korean phrases to ask about wheat, barley, and soy sauce.
- Shop at local markets for fresh produce, rice, meats, and seafood you can cook yourself.
- Check out gluten-free Korean grocery products to bring home.
- Stay at an Airbnb with a kitchen so you can prepare some of your own meals.
- Ask your lodging staff for help with gluten-free suggestions.
- Visit restaurants earlier before fried items may contaminate oils.
- Focus on naturally gluten-free bibimbap, grilled meats, rice dishes, kimchi stew, and Korean barbeque.
With extra diligence reading labels, using translations, and asking questions, you can safely navigate gluten-free eating in Korea. Try authentic local specialties and discover new gluten-free Korean favorites.
Gluten-free Korean meal plan
Here is a sample one week gluten-free Korean meal plan to give you inspiration for preparing your own Korean-inspired dishes:
Breakfast: Rice porridge (juk) with mushrooms, spinach, and egg
Lunch: Kimchi fried rice with pork belly and tamari, Korean spinach salad
Dinner: Grilled bulgogi beef lettuce wraps, buckwheat noodles with veggies
Breakfast: Korean soy yogurt with rice puff cereal, fruit
Lunch: Japchae made with sweet potato noodles, broiled mackerel
Dinner: Bibimbap rice bowl with gochujang
Breakfast: Glutinous rice balls coated in sesame seeds
Lunch: Egg drop soup with rice noodles, steamed veggies
Dinner: Braised chicken and veggie hot pot
Breakfast: Rice cereal with banana and almond milk
Lunch: Tuna kimbap rolls
Dinner: Korean chili garlic fried chicken made with rice flour
Breakfast: Fried egg with kimchi fried rice
Lunch: Buckwheat noodle salad with vegetables
Dinner: Yukgaejang (spicy shredded beef soup)
Breakfast: Brown rice porridge with dates and nuts
Lunch: Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps
Dinner: Haemul pajeon (seafood green onion pancake)
Breakfast: Rice breakfast bowl with fried egg, spinach, mushrooms
Lunch: Kimchi jjigae stew with tofu
Dinner: Grilled short ribs, seasoned shiitake mushrooms
With a balanced mix of rice, vegetables, protein, and classic Korean flavors, this meal plan offers inspiration for bringing delicious and healthy gluten-free Korean recipes into your weekly routine.
Korean cuisine relies heavily on gluten-free whole foods like rice, vegetables, meats, seafood, and fermented ingredients. While wheat flour and soy sauce do make occasional appearances, most classic Korean dishes are naturally gluten-free or can be adapted. Checking labels, reading menus carefully, and asking questions allows those avoiding gluten to enjoy the spicy, savory flavors of Korean food. With an arsenal of gluten-free substitutions and recipe ideas, you can whip up Korean-inspired meals to enjoy anytime.