The Problem with Eating at Restaurants

I’m currently writing a short guide on how to follow a GF diet while living or traveling in Japan.  This guide will have more information on this subject with ways to order foods that are safe for you to consume. In the meantime, I wanted to offer some quick advice on eating at restaurants in Japan.  I’ve written about this topic before, and my attitude on it wavers from time to time, depending on whether I’ve been dosed accidentally with gluten or not (which has happened mainly at restaurants that are questionable and not serving organic foods).  

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Izakayas are probably the hardest places to find something to eat in Japan for someone who is gluten intolerant or has Celiac Disease. Unfortunately for us, most people socialize at Izakayas.

My current basic rule is this:  if you’re going to eat at a restaurant, eat where most of the ingredients are not processed.  You should look for restaurants that focus on slow, organic, natural foods.  This does not eliminate the possibility of cross contamination, but it will be much easier for your chef to understand what she/he can and cannot prepare for you.  If the restaurant does not rely on processed foods, you’ll be much more likely to have a meal that is gluten-free.  When it comes to processed foods – even as base ingredients for meals that seem to be gluten-free — its most likely they are derived from or are a source of wheat and/or barley.  

When you head out, use a gluten-free dining card or make one yourself if you cannot afford to purchase one.  There are a few that are free online in addition to the ones you can buy.  I currently use Triumph Dining’s Japanese gluten-free card, but it’s not perfect.  It doesn’t list everything on it and I’ve unfortunately been dosed with gluten because a chef served me a soup base made from consomme. 

The longer I live here, the more I realize that wheat and barley are basically in almost everything that’s processed in Japan.  Instead of having to memorize a ton of kanji for technical terms for certain food products  or attempt to explain that  not only does 醤油 – shouyu (soy sauce) have wheat in it, but that コンソメ (consomme) (the processed stock base used for soups) or 水あめ (or 水飴 – mizu-ame) which is in nearly all candy/chocolates and sweets in this country) also do as well, it’s easier to just eat fresh foods that are in the natural state (not processed).  Even if you tell someone that you have 小麦粉と麦アレルギー (komugi-ko to mugi arerugi), it’s just not enough to help a chef decipher what’s safe for you to eat and what is not, because often they don’t know what’s in these processed food products they use.  If you don’t have a dining card that lists everything you cannot eat, it will be too difficult for them or you  to figure it out.  Complicated, right?

So if you’re going to eat at a restaurant (or if you’re traveling and you’re unable to self-cater), eat at organic restaurants or high end hotel restaurants that can cater to your needs (the luxury places will do it because you’re going to pay them a ton of money to do this).  The food will be closer to the paleo-like diet that is gluten-free.  It’s a safer option for you. 

 

What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything at All…

Many people ask in online forums about what it will be like traveling to Japan and following a GF diet.  Before I came to Japan, I thought it would be easy to adjust my diet here seeing as rice is their main dietary staple.  What I didn’t expect was that soy sauce would be found in almost every dish they serve.  It should also be considered one of their main dietary staples as well and as most of those on GF diets know, soy sauce has wheat in it which means it is off limits and any food seasoned with it is as well.

Well, that’s puts a bit of a damper on being a gourmand in Japan.  I mean, you can buy a bottle of wheat/gluten free tamari soy sauce, but you’re still not going to be able to eat most of the foods that are prepared for you at restaurants, at the staff parties, at BBQ’s, at izakayas, at festivals, etc. Yes, some restaurants will prepare foods without wheat for you, but if you’re severely intolerant or celiac, or if you’re allergic to other things besides wheat/gluten, you’ll need to realize that you won’t be able to eat all of the delicious foods that you see everywhere.  There is so much wheat in the Japanese diet that it’s misleading to say that rice is the main staple here.  Yes, rice is served with almost every meal, but so is a form of wheat.

Delicious Japanese foods that you cannot eat.

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