I cannot put into words how much I love Kyoto – the history, the culture, the people… and the food. Oh, the food. Being my first destination upon arriving in Japan, I was genuinely clueless as to what I could expect in terms of being able to find gluten free meals. While the language barrier proved tricky sometimes, everyone was always more than willing to try and help, and all of the places I visited in Kyoto were aware of what needing to eat gluten free meant (and could cater to it). If you haven’t already read my main Japan post on eating gluten free, you can find it here for an overview of general tips.
While many restaurants in Japan catering to gluten free seem to be of vegan or non-traditional cuisine, it was in Kyoto that I managed to find a truly ‘real’ Japanese meal. And, somewhat surprisingly, the city was also home to some of the most AMAZING gluten free cakes and sweet treats that I’ve ever had – not just in Japan, but anywhere. As I type this a couple of weeks on, I’m still thinking about them… (read on and you’ll see why).
So without further ado, here is my array of wonderful food finds in Kyoto and the neighbouring city of Nara:
Situated just a few minutes away from my hotel, you can probably imagine my joy as – wheeling a heavy suitcase behind me and having been awake for 31 hours straight to try and beat jetlag – I walked past this restaurant and the words ‘everything gluten free’ caught my eye. Choice is a vegan restaurant, where all dishes are entirely gf, too.
Somewhat ironically for a country known for eating rice, upon being seated on our visit we were informed that they’d run out of rice so couldn’t serve any of their risotto dishes. So we went for pasta – mine a caprese, with little vegan mozzarella balls (tasted just like the real thing) and tomato; my boyfriend went for one with a spirulina ‘pesto’ dressing.
While the portion was fairly small for the price, it tasted lovely and the wait staff were very friendly. They also have salads, burgers, cheesecakes, and a breakfast menu, too – which, amongst other offerings, comprises a duo of big pancakes.
This restaurant was the priciest that I visited during my entire 17 days in Japan, but the food was by far some of the most superior, too. There is an English menu available, on which the gluten free dishes on marked up, and staff can also talk through options.
About a third of the dishes on offer are gf, and I had a tough time deciding what to go for as they all sounded delicious. Eventually, I chose the Sakura Lamb, which arrived perfectly pink and beautifully succulent, and my boyfriend went for the Grilled Pork (also a gf dish), which he declared to be some of the best he had ever eaten.
We also both shared a plate of seasonal vegetables – they too tasted fantastic, but cost almost £10. However, fruit and vegetables are both very expensive in Japan, as people there consider that a lot of effort has gone into growing and producing them so the farmers should be rewarded accordingly; in turn, they are often given as gifts, too.
These three plates and a drink each totalled nearly £50, so we decided not to venture a look at the dessert menu, but if you’re willing to splash the cash in a ridiculously chic setting for some utterly divine food, then it’s most certainly worth a visit.
I promised it… a truly Japanese dining experience that you can enjoy gluten free. This restaurant is easy to walk past, as it’s an unassuming, traditional building. After entering through a sliding wooden door, an entry area awaits – where you take off your shoes before being led through to the main eating area that comprises several rooms and a long eating area in front of the open-fronted kitchen – all with the traditionally low tables and floor seating.
Kushikura serves yakitori, which is a traditional Japanese cuisine of various grilled meat and veg skewers; with the idea being that you order lots of different ones to make up your meal. Again, there is an English menu available – and not only are staff able to point out gluten free options, but when you place your order they even have a button marked ‘FF’ (free from!) on their little electronic order pad. Just under half the dishes on the menu are gluten free, or can be adapted to be so if the sauces are not added once the food is grilled – one of the dishes I ordered was a grilled Hokkaido potato, with a perfectly crispy skin and fluffy inside, that usually came with a miso butter but was gf if served without.
I also had some asparagus that was cooked just perfectly, so it had just the right amount of crunch, some succulent chicken and with slices of leek, and thick, juicy slices of shiitake mushroom. All very reasonably priced, and in the perfect setting.
I’d heard that Toshoan, an entirely gluten free bakery, not only serves little sponge cakes and cookies, but also cream puffs. In my eight years (and counting) of being gf, I’ve never had one of these. Therefore, I HAD TO GO. They have two shops: one comprising a little café near Nijo Castle, and another in the food hall underneath Kyoto Tower. Seeing as we were much closer to the Tower branch, we stopped by – and you can only imagine my disappointment when I discovered that they sell their little cakes and cookies here, but not the cream puffs.
So I picked up a little chocolate cake to take away, which – no word of a lie – is one of the best cakes (gf and not) that I have ever eaten. Fudgy, almost brownie-like, rich without being sickly, and beautifully moist, my only wish was that I’d eaten it there and then so I could pick up another one (or five).
I refused for my quest for cream puffs to come to an end there, though – and so dragged my boyfriend halfway across the city (big kudos to him for going along with this) to their larger store. And there they were: in either Matcha or Sakura (cherry blossom) flavours; I settled for Matcha after much deliberation.
It was totally worth the walk – perfect pastry that I haven’t tasted in so many years, with a big amount of smooth matcha cream and sweet red bean (I am obsessed with the stuff) filling. If you’re in Kyoto, visit here as soon as you can – and then plan your return visit.
Situated in a traditional market area, this ice cream shop caters to a range of dietary requirements – gluten free, dairy free, organic and vegan. Two big cabinets containing tubs of both ice cream and sorbet in an array of flavours await – with dairy free and gluten free options being clearly marked up.
While traditional cones are available, if you’re gf, you can enjoy your order in either a cup or – the piece de resistance – a mochi rice waffle cone that tasted fantastic and had wonderfully soft texture yet still held its shape. The ice cream was ridiculously good, too – my scoop of strawberry and honey was bursting with flavour and beautifully smooth.
I must like Mexican food or something, because I’ve never made so many repeat visits to try and get into a restaurant in my life! On the second successive evening of not being able to get a table (a sure-fire sign that somewhere is good), we made a reservation there and then for two nights later.
Upon returning, I discovered that La Jolla have a huge menu, and a good portion of dishes on it are already gluten free, or can be made so. I was ravenous, so my boyfriend and I shared (coeliac friendly) corn chips for starters, with a huge dollop of the creamiest guacamole that had a perfect hint of chilli for an extra bit of flavour.
For main I had vegetable tacos, using blue corn tortillas that were super soft and tasted absolutely divine; and paired it with a side of Spanish rice, which rounded the meal off perfectly. All of the food was absolutely delicious, and two separate members of staff dealt with my order to make sure it was safe for me. And, even better – all that food came in at less than £10. Definitely worth the trouble of getting a table for!
Yak and Yeti
If La Jolla takes the prize for most difficult to get a table at during my time in Kyoto, then Yak and Yeti wins at the trickiest to find – but again, is definitely worth the effort (NB: it’s down a little alleyway off the street, so you won’t stop the front signage immediately). This Nepalese restaurant has a huge menu – comprising everything from grills to curries, and a variety of both meat and vegetarian options – and a large proportion of dishes can be made gluten free, too.
The lone waitress (hats off to her for running around and looking after the entire restaurant single-handedly) speaks great English and can easily point out what options are available gf. The three course set menu works out at the best value (around £14 in total); so I started with summer rolls, comprising shredded mixed veggies and thin vermicelli rice noodles tightly wrapped in delicate rice paper – they were fit to bursting and tasted great.
For main, I had the paneer curry with rice – both very generous portions and the curry itself was mild but still very tasty. To finish the meal off, I had a small bowl of beautifully smooth and zesty mango ice cream – just the right amount as I was fit to burst by this point, but it satisfied my sweet tooth perfectly.
Spice House Diwali
Located on the seventh floor of a small shopping centre, eating here was probably the trickiest of the meals that I had in Kyoto, purely because the language barrier proved more of a problem. I’d taken out a translation card with me and hadn’t had to use it up until this point – but in any case it proved useless as the waiter couldn’t read Kanji (there are several types of written pictorial Japanese, of which this is one).
However, we managed to explain in the end by using the blessed Google translate and my boyfriend’s ability to speak some Japanese, and in turn I got to enjoy another delicious curry.
As tempting as it was to have another paneer variety, I chose a vegetable tikka, which tasted great and had a bit of a kick to it; and this was served alongside a huge amount of rice and a little salad. When ordering, definitely pay attention to the heat rating of the curries: my boyfriend loves chilli and asked for his curry hot – but got more than he bargained for when he said it was delicious but one of the hottest he’d ever had!
If you’re staying in Kyoto (or Osaka), do yourself a huge favour and visit Nara. About 45 minutes on the train, this stunning city is home to tame deer that roam the streets and approach you for crackers (that you can purchase very cheaply from vendors), the most incredible temple housing a mammoth Buddha (it genuinely has to be seen to be believed), and gorgeous parks that you can spend ages walking through – especially when I went during cherry blossom season.
Runner’s Bar Correr
Fortunately, it’s also where you can find this entirely gluten free eatery that’s a 15 minute walk away from the main park. Upstairs there’s only five or so tables (and a piano, obviously) and a little bar to sit at downstairs, but its small size just adds to its charm.
The menu here has meat, vegetarian and vegan options, and there’s a good variety of dishes to choose from – the lunch menu comprises soup and bagels to pizza and Japanese-style tapas. I went for the pizza set menu, which began with a great little starter platter of soup, frittata, chickpeas and salad.
The pizza itself had the whitest-looking base I’d ever seen, then realised it must have been made from either rice or konjac – either way, it had a fantastically slightly soft and chewy but moreish texture, and there was plenty of cheese and ham topping. My non-coeliac boyfriend also loved his tapas set – he raved about the pork and vegetable dish, and loved the fluffy homemade bread roll (and he usually only has bad things to say about gf bread).
On the way out we saw a big spread of different muffins – and the chocolate one made the perfect treat on the train back to Kyoto.
Gluten Free Is The New Black
A couple of weeks after returning from Japan, I saw that an entirely gluten free bakery is going to be opening in Nara this summer (2018) – obviously I missed out visiting myself (until next time…), but if you’re heading to the city after this time, then they’re definitely one to add to your visit list.