I. Love. Japan. A place with such deeply embedded culture and traditions, that unify an archipelago of fascinating people, history, and cuisine, is one not to be missed. For people following the keto diet, it is important to eat low-carb, which unfortunately means missing out on many Japanese staple foods. Never fear, for here is a handy list of “Keto Japanese Food” so you can still enjoy restaurants, the country, or even make your own Japanese food!
In this list, we dive deep into Japanese culture, and discover authentic Japanese food that still lives on today to create healthy low-carb meals. These are great for keto diets and other carb-restricted diets. Let’s get into it!
A Quick Introduction to Keto
The ketogenic diet (keto) is one with a simple goal: maintaining a state of “ketosis”. This is a metabolic state in which are natural and primary source of energy comes from fat. For this reason, it is often followed by those trying to lose body fat, as ketosis will draw from fat deposits as a source of energy.
A low-carb high-fat diet like this has been shown to have multiple health benefits (^).
- Boosted Weight-Loss (^)
- Ketone Production Improves Brain Health (^)(^)
- Reduced Appetite and Hunger (^)
- Improved Cholesterol (^)
- May Benefit Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes (Under Supervision) (^)
Understanding that a keto diet is a highly different state of our bodies from most people in the Western world is important. Low-carb and ketogenic diets are drastically different to typical diets encouraged by authorities and others, and can boost health.
In general, most people won’t follow this diet for longer than a few months to a year (maximum). Little research is conclusive on the health effects of long-term ketosis, and it’s not recommened for long-term sustainable dieting. Consulting a nutritionist or dietitian is recommended to follow this
So, at last, here are our recommened low-carb Japanese foods. Enjoy!
Starting off with the obvious choice, sashimi is raw sliced seafood. This most often includes fatty fish like tuna and salmon and mackerel, but is also made with other fish and shellfish.
It is an important part of sushi and onigiri, but works excellently by itself. In Japan, people often dip sashimi in soy sauce or ponzu before eating it.
Sashimi also made it onto our other food list: “Healthy Food From Japan“, where we cover in-depth its many health benefits, and also explore the risks. To summarise:
The nutritients of different seafood and fish naturally vary, so sashimi will vary in nutrition, flavour, and health benefits.
Salmon, for example, is often boasted to be a superfood, providing heart and brain-healthy Omega-3 fatty-acids (^)(^), antioxidant astaxanthin, protein, and vitamins and minerals. Being a source of selenium make salmon excellent for our immune system, as well! Providing about 30mg per 3oz serving, it is easy to get recommended amount of selenium (55mg for most adults) by including salmon in the diet.
Astaxtanthin may even promote longevity by activating FOXO-3 Genes!
Phosphorus, Potassium and B-vitamins also support, the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, promote healthy hormone balance, reduce inflammation, improve metabolism, and help to prevent kidney stones, lower blood pressure, and more.
Other fatty fish have similar nutritional composition, but naturally vary and have different tastes entirely! That makes enjoying them exciting and easier for most people.
For example, tuna has a lower amount of omega-3s and copper, but contains higher levels of selenium and protein.
More healthy seafood options include mackerel, cod, black cod (sablefish), and squid.
Safety Information: Sashimi is Raw Fish
To be clear, you shouldn’t just go and eat any raw fish. The reasons is so popular in Japan is because the country has very strict and high quality standards for seafood. Paired with a high level of experience carried on from ancient times, Japan takes great pride in the level of expertise carried by their fishermen.
Eating sashimi outside of Japan should be done in restaurants with good reputations, so they can be trusted. If you decide to make your own, please refer to our other article for more information about sourcing and using fresh seafood.
Miso Soup 味噌汁
Once again we have another common item from our healthy food from Japan list!
Technically fermented soy bean paste, miso would seem to be high-carb
at first glance. But in fact, only a small amount is needed to make even
a deep, rich soup.
Miso soup comes in many varieties and is easily customisable to your liking. You can get miso pastes with different strengths, colours, and flavours, such as a light white miso (shiromiso) or the more intense red miso (akamiso). Interestingly, this beloved dish is thought to have first come from the Jōmon era, which likely means over 3,000 years ago!
Some of its main health benefits come from the fact that it is a fermented food, meaning that it’s probiotic, providing us with healthy bacteria to support our own gut bacteria. Believe it or not, these beneficial bacteria (collectively our microboime) play vital roles in our immune system, brain, organ, and digestive health!
If you make it at home (which I highly recommend – it’s delicious), follow the instructions and do not boil the water! This would kill the healthy bacteria and as such reduce the health benefits.
Not only is it fun to say *shabu-shabu* (which is in fact onomatopeoia), it’s fun to make, eat, and is low carb. If you get the opportunity to eat this dish, it is an excellent addition to the keto diet, often being fairly high in fat.
Picture the setting: you, maybe a few friends, maybe family, sitting around a table at a Japanese restaurant. Then over comes a large pot of hot broth (probably kombu dashi*), along with a plate or tray of extremely thin, well-marbled raw meat.
At first you’re confused, but pick up your chopsticks nonetheless. As your waiter gestures, you quickly figure out what’s going on. As you pick up the meat and begin stirring it in the broth, the name “shabu-shabu” comes to make sense, as you hear. And soon you find yourself enjoying delicious meat connect exactly to your liking!
That, is shabu-shabu.
(*kombu dashi is a light broth made with kombu kelp [get some here] – a highly beneficial source of iodine providing a tempting umami flavour).
The benefits this provides will depend on the type of meat and the quality of the meat. For those of you with a little knowledge of Japan, you probably know about wagyu beef. If you can get that, free-range (pastured), then you’re in for a treat.
An interesting choice, though not the highest on some people’s lists, is “sakuraniku”. This translates to “cherry blossom meat”, and describes the resonant pink colour of… Horse meat. Yep! An apparently flavorful meat, horse is actually eaten across Japan. Most famously, people enjoy it in the prefecture of Kumamoto. Most often, it is served just like sashimi, but also can be eaten in the form of shabu shabu.
Japanese Pickles つけもの
Pickles in Japan, (called ‘Tsukemono’) are delicacies enjoyed with many dishes and on many occasions. Tsukemono come in many different types, and are basically any traditionally-pickled vegetable or fruit pickles!
On a keto diet, you’ll want to avoid most fruit pickles such as umeboshi. It might be okay to be more lenient on some of the vegetables when fermented though, because bacteria feed off of the starches and carbohydrates, essentially “pre-digesting” food and lowering the levels.
These lower carbohydrate levels make for great keto Japanese food.
A great choice to go for is salt pickles (Shiozuke 塩漬け), which are fermented in a salt brine. Most often people make these pickles with cucumber, carrot, or cabbage, but almost any vegetable will work if you make them yourself! You might also find nukazuke 糠漬け, which are pickled vegetables fermented in rice bran. You’ll also come across some low-carb miso pickles if you’re lucky!
There are other common types of non-fermented pickles in Japan, which are still delicious side dishes. These include soy sauce pickles, vinegar pickles
Tamagoyaki is a Japanese-style omelette. To make it, people typically use a square or rectangular dish to fry omelettes which they then roll up to one end, before adding the next layer of eggs and repeating the process 5 to 6 times until they have basically an omelette loaf! Slice into horizontal chunks and you have properly prepared tamagoyaki.
You can season this as you like, but soy sauce is a good option.
As eggs are an important staple of the ketogenic diet, so is this dish an awesome way to prepare them. Tamagoyaki is also great for bento (Japanese lunch boxes). You could easily pair it with the pickles and mushrooms on this list, for example, and have keto Japanese food for on the go.
Remember when frying to use a healthy fat! Stick to beneficial fats like grass-fed animal fat, coconut oil, dairy (butter/ghee), olive oil, avocado oil, and almond oil. At all costs, avoid oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as soy, sunflower, safflower, canola, grapeseed, corn, and “vegetable” oil.
Simple Shiitake or Elegant Enoki Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms (シイタケ）are a famed health food from Japan, with a rich umami flavour and many proven health benefits. They provide 7g of carbs for every 100g, making them an ideal meal or side dish for those on a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
Powerful ingredients found in shiitake mushrooms, such as Lentinan, exhibit impressive anticancer activities. Researchers from Japan have found Lentinan to be particularly powerful for against gastric cancer (^). Additionally, one study conducted by American researchers demonstrates myochemicals in shiitake mushrooms to inhibit other types of tumor growth (^).
Enoki mushrooms (えのき）are another type of mushroom from Japan, with a surprisingly elegant appearance. They’re extremely thin, noodle-like in fact. In Japan, people like to add this mushroom into soups. Why not try it in miso soup? They provide a light and yet satisfying flavour, making them easily enjoyable.
Enoki mushrooms provide 8g of carbs per 100g. Furthermore, studies show they have demonstrated anticancer, immunomodulatory, heart health-boosting, and anti-neurodegenerative effects (^).
Mushrooms are extremely rich in antioxidants, particularly Ergotheoneine. This unique polysaccharide impresses with a powerful ability to protect the mitochondria in our cells. This prevents aging and can help to protect us from cancer.
A Yoshoku (Western-influenced Japanese food) dish you might like to try as a keto Japanese food is enoki and bacon rolls. You simply wrap these mushrooms in bacon strips and bake in the oven to create deliciously finger food!
Miso Black Cod 味噌ギンダラ
Not actually part of the cod family, black cod (sablefish) is a delicacy fish enjoyed in Japan. Mostly, people marinate it in a miso sauce and bake it… To make the sauce, people will typically mix miso, mirin, sake, and sugar. Clearly not a great combination for healthy eating or keto!
However, I stand firm by the rule that anything can be made healthily. Delicious food does not have to come at all from unhealthy sources. Do not trick your taste buds! Following a natural diet develops your palate to detect the deepest flavours within wholefoods. Milk is sweet, fruits are very sweet, overdone meat lacks that something special, and bitter isn’t always bad. Everyone finds this slightly differently, but it’s an instinctive way of detecting good nutrition.
By limiting carbs, we learn from a low-carb or ketogenic diet not to overindulge on foods like sweet fruits. (These are still full of unhealthy sugar in the form of fructose.)
Instead of using sugar, mirin, and sake, how about replacing them with lemon juice, ginger, or plain rice vinegar! This way you can create a marinade for your miso black cod which fits perfectly into this list of keto Japanese food.
Butajiru / Tonjiru 豚汁
Literally “pork soup”, butajiru is a hearty pork soup often made with variety of vegetables, and Tonjiru is simply another name. People will sometimes refer to a larger serving as Tonjiru though.
Pork, shiitake mushrooms and root vegetables like daikon, burdock, or carrots are often paired with a lightening scallion or onion. Those on a ketogenic diet usually limit the intake of starchy vegetables. This is important, so with this soup I recommend you seek alternative ingredients or you have a smaller serving as part of a larger meal!
There is no reason why this delicious dish can’t act as a healthy keto Japanese food.
An excellent way to make this is in a slow cooker! Check out my post to find some great slow cookers to use.
In Conclusion – Japanese Food Can Be Keto-Friendly!
Much like the country and culture, Japanese cuisine is one not to skip out on! If you’re currently following a keto diet, there are plenty of options to choose from that you can enjoy as single serve dishes or alongside other dishes.
Now you can go to that restaurant, finally explore this oriental cuisine, and rest assured. It’s really quite simple to experience Japanese cuisine without all the carbs, after all.
Is there anything I missed out? Let me know in the comments below with your recommendations for this list. If you’d like me to make a similar post for other ethnic cuisines, send a comment my way and I’ll be sure to respond. 🙂
Thank you for reading, and coming along on this low-carb journey.
Until next time, stay healthy