How do you eat gluten-free in Japan?
Where do you find wheat-free food in a country known for everything breaded and fried? Eating gluten-free in the US is not too difficult: many restaurants have gluten-free menus, and recent advances in bread technology are declared as not only edible but tasty by gluten-eating friends. As time goes on, Americans are becoming more aware of food additives with unpronounceable names, so within reason, we mostly know what’s in our food. It’s easy enough to cook gluten-free at home, but eating out is sometimes a bit of an adventure, especially when there’s any sort of language barrier involved. At least in the Middle East, generations of folks rocking funky patches of the HLA-DRA gene have Celiac and almost everyone is familiar with wheat sensitivities, or at least the concept of Passover. Tel Aviv has numerous restaurants that cater to the gluten-free crowd.
But eating gluten-free in Japan? Finding gluten-free food at Japanese restaurants, conbinis, or grocery stores? むずかしいです, difficult… Almost everything in Japan has gluten in it. Soy sauce, thickened with wheat, is ubiquitous. You think sushi is safe? The vinegar used for sushi rice is sometimes doped with gluten, added for color after the distillation process. Breaded cutlet, tempura, soba and udon noodles, curry, red miso… all have the dreaded 麦 (mugi, whether wheat or barley). Peanut M&Ms, Snickers… foods that are usually safe in the US all have wheat flour in their Japanese variants. The Japanese also drink barley or wheat tea! How do you communicate to Japanese waiters, cooks, and friends that you might get ill if you eat gluten, especially when you don’t really speak the language?
For the bonus round, MSG in China and Japan is made out of real gluten (unlike in the US, where it’s made from a different bacterial fermentation process) and is a tad more nefarious than its American cousins. Want a headache all day? Try eating packaged umeboshi (pickled plums), deli meat, or even pre-made onigiri rice balls at the combini around the corner. And it’s not labeled as MSG–it shows up as “amino flavoring”, アミノ (last post here).
What to look for in ingredients lists
The kanji common to wheat and barley is mugi: 麦. You usually see 小麦 (wheat), or 大麦 (barley). しょうゆ, or 醤油, means soy sauce, and that’s usually a no-go. アミノ酸など are amino flavorings, also known as MSG. The Japanese variety of MSG guarantees a lot of headaches for foreigners.
“I’m allergic to gluten”
Most Japanese people I encountered have no idea what “gluten” (グルテン) is, so I told them I have an allergy to wheat and soy sauce. “小麦も醤油のアレルギーがあります; komugi mo shoyu no areguri ga arimasu; wheat and soy sauce allergy.”
How to ask for gluten-free food in Japanese
There are a number of existing gluten-free restaurant cards, but they are not necessarily Japan-specific and do not mention some of the more popular foods in which gluten hides in Japanese food.
Due to illness, I have a diet restriction. I cannot eat the ingredients below:
I cannot eat gluten.
Ingredients which contain gluten are wheat, rye and barley.
I will become very ill if I eat food containing the above ingredients.
Also, I cannot eat anything which has come in contact or is mixed at all with wheat. This includes bread, bread crumbs and soy sauce. I brought my own tamari sauce to flavor my food.
Most sauces contain wheat so please serve meat without sauce.
I cannot eat red miso, tempura (due to bread crumbs), or tonkatsu (also due to bread crumbs).
If you don’t know what ingredients are in a dish, please tell me.
Whatever version of this comes next will thank the waiter profusely for their trouble, and also include more examples of what can be eaten (rice, meat, vegetables, onions, etc.).
In addition to this prototype translation, From Japan With Love has some excellent resources on eating out and cooking gluten-free in Japan. The Internet informs me that gluten-free bread and dessert recipes exist in Japanese, so perhaps awareness of celiac and other gluten sensitivities is becoming more common. There’s also a page of recipes in Japanese appropriate for various allergen-free diets.
What to order in a restaurant
Sashimi, shabu shabu, donburi without soy sauce, Vietnamese pho, rice, salad without sauce, steak without sauce at a family restaurant, and Sasebo burgers without buns in Sasebo. San-J, best known for their soy sauce, sells travel-sized packages of gluten-free tamari in the US, which are perfect for going out for sushi. At Korean BBQ places, ask for meat without sauce, then make your own out of your gluten-free tamari with chili paste and garlic provided.
Grocery store and convenience store foods
While on the run, the Family Mart conbini has yogurt, bacon snacks, some lunch meats, white chocolate-covered freeze-dried strawberries, some lunch meats, chocolate-covered peanuts and almonds, yogurt, most nuts (check the ingredients for wheat), and purple onigiri rice balls with sweet black beans. The rest of the onigiri have gluten or amino acids. Don’t buy CalorieMate.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to cooking facilities, Japanese grocery stores stock the usual fish, meat, eggs, yogurt, vegetables, and rice that are safe. Finding gluten-free bread or other gluten-free desserts is hard; expect to eat a mostly paleo or slow-carb diet while abroad, unless you bring a ton of quinoa and bread from abroad. Don’t expect many places to have ovens, though you may have a rice maker that doubles as a bread maker.
What have you found to be helpful in a Japanese restaurant or while purchasing food in Japan for a gluten-free diet? Happy (wheat-, barley-, and gluten-free) eating in 日本!