In one generation, sushi has made it in America. It’s the go-to snack, light meal, or party appetizer for millions. Yet people who must avoid gluten have approached sushi with caution, even though many key ingredients like rice, vegetables, and seafood don’t naturally contain gluten. The problem has been with other ingredients, such as soy sauce, traditionally made from fermented wheat and soy. About two years ago, Wegmans Food Markets began working toward making all sushi varieties sold in its stores strictly from ingredients that contain no gluten – including the soy sauce packets tucked into the sushi trays. This month, they reached that goal.
“We and our supplier partners worked hard for this and it came together only over time,” said Chef John Emerson, Wegmans director of sushi and Asian cuisine who spearheaded the effort. “But now, we’re proud to say that we offer sushi of outstanding taste and freshness that also happens to be made with no gluten-containing ingredients.”
Signs at sushi bars will say, “Made with No Gluten-Containing Ingredients.” Wegmans takes care to keep a distinction between prepared foods made from ingredients that have no gluten in them versus grocery items labeled ‘gluten-free,’ which customers typically buy in sealed containers.
“Our stores make all kinds of foods fresh each day,” said Wegmans Nutritionist Trish Kazacos, RD, who writes articles about living gluten-free for the Wegmans blog, Fresh Stories. “We follow normal good retailing practices for all of our prepared foods, but there is the potential for inadvertent cross-contact with gluten. Some customers are comfortable with that risk, others are not. Our job is to offer clear information so they can make the choice that’s right for them personally.”
About 3 million Americans (or one percent of the population) have celiac disease. For those with celiac, eating foods that contain gluten – a protein in wheat, rye and barley- triggers an autoimmune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. An even larger segment of the population (up to 10 percent) has a non-celiac form of gluten sensitivity that can cause digestive discomforts and other symptoms. The only treatment for both groups is to avoid gluten completely.
“People around the world love sushi, and the fact that many sushi ingredients don’t contain gluten to begin with got us thinking about eliminating gluten from our ingredient list period – for all of the varieties we make. If we succeeded, sushi could be on the menu for a new set of folks,” said Emerson. His team reached a major milestone along the way about year ago when Kikkoman, the international company best known for its soy sauce, developed a gluten-free soy sauce for use only in sushi bars at Wegmans stores. “We needed just the right balance of sweetness and saltiness to complement our sushi. It took some fine tuning, but the day came when we tasted a batch with a flavor that topped them all – and it was gluten-free!” More on this milestone. (Wegmans also sells gluten-free Kikkoman soy sauce in grocery aisles, but that item is made from a different recipe.)
There were still other milestones to reach in the campaign to eliminate gluten from sushi. “Reformulating other sauces went smoothly, but the tempura batter was really tough,” Emerson said. “Shrimp tempura rolls and coconut shrimp rolls are top favorites with lots of customers. People adore that silky-light crunch that tempura gets when the batter is deep-fried, but that texture is very hard to duplicate in a batter with no gluten. We selected a Japanese company with a plant in California to work with us, we tested dozens of different batters, and one day the perfect one arrived. It had that wonderful crunch – and no gluten!”
Sushi bars have been a staple in Wegmans stores since 1996, but in 2011, Wegmans opened a new chapter in the sushi story by sending a team led by Emerson to Japan to learn best practices in the sushi capital of the world. After that trip, Wegmans sought new suppliers for the two most basic ingredients in sushi, short grain rice and seasoned vinegar. Marukan, a 350-year-old Japanese firm, developed a custom blend of its seasoned rice vinegar for Wegmans, with the right balance of sweet, sour and salty taste notes. It is gluten free. Tamaki Gold, a California rice grower, began supplying Wegmans with freshly milled rice short-grain each month. The company also upgraded its equipment, tools and staff education in its quest to produce sushi-house quality fare.
Since the Japan trip, Wegmans chefs have created new vegetable and cooked seafood combinations to please customer palates. Two newcomers at the sushi bar: The Margarita Roll and the Kale-Elujah Roll. “The Margarita roll is made from kampachi fish, a sustainable variety from Hawaii that tastes like tuna, plus bay scallops in a ceviche-like lime dressing with agave and a bit of fleur de sel. Tequila is made from agave, so this sushi’s flavors remind you of a cool Margarita in a salt-rimmed glass!” said Emerson. The Kale-Elujah Roll speaks to those who love eating healthfully. “It has really taken off. It’s made with brown rice, chia, quinoa, kale, and sesame, all rolled up into the Kale-Elujah roll.”
Sushi comes in many shapes and sizes, and each type has its own name. If you’d like to brush up on your sushi knowledge, check out the Sushi 101 section of Wegmans.com. Enjoy!