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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Ok, that’s a bit of a depressing fact.  I know because I’ve had to come to terms with it.  Luckily, I can eat sushi and sashimi and I bring my bottle of tamari with me to do so.  But anything outside of that when going out to eat Japanese or Okinawan food with my friends is treading dangerous waters.  I’ve unfortunately been exposed to a lot of gluten this year because I wanted to try the foods here and I’m paying for it physically.  The physical and emotional pains of this disease disappear once you’re on a controlled, gluten-free diet and you start to forget how you once felt.  Then, if you’re foolish like me, you think you can have a little bit of gluten here and there and low and behold, you’re back to feeling extremely ill. Your body bitch-slaps you for betraying it.  So, in essence, you cannot go off your diet, even if you want to try the takoyaki or the sukiyaki or the Ishigaki beef that’s marinated in soy sauce.  Sorry, you can’t.

Most people don’t understand what gluten intolerance or celiac disease is and frankly I don’t want to have to constantly explain it to them as I don’t really like labeling myself as The Girl Who Can’t Eat Anything.  But if you don’t tell people that you cannot eat wheat, they will serve it to you in many different forms.  I usually tell people that I’m allergic.  Of course, if you don’t go into anaphalactic shock or break out in hives after consuming wheat/gluten, people start to wonder if you’re really allergic.  Could it just be that you’re a picky eater?  Are you just craving attention??  I cannot understand why people would doubt another person’s self-limitations.  Sorry, I’m not choosing this for attention, nor am I lying about it.  I feel like garbage when I eat anything that has even a small amount of gluten in it, so why would I lie to you about that?  Just realize that some people aren’t capable of empathy when it comes to this matter and leave it.   Sometimes though, people forget that you cannot eat wheat or soy sauce.  In fact, they often forget.  Just be kind and gently remind them for the nth time that you can’t and move on.

Everyone’s reactionary symptoms to this systemic disorder are different, mine involve vitamin/mineral deficiency which then leads to anemia which causes extreme fatigue and anxiety.  I also get skin issues, gastrointestinal problems and so on.  Lovely!  If you are gluten intolerant and you continue to eat wheat/gluten (or you stupidly decide that it’s OK to sneak wheat/gluten back into your diet) you run the risk of developing much more severe autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases.  Would you like a side order of Lupus or Crohn’s Disease with that tempura and beer you’re enjoying?  It’s scary to feel like your body is no longer functioning properly, but I know what causes this pain and I know I can control it if I just follow the diet.  But how do you solve a problem like gluten in a country where most of the foods contain it?

Tetsu-san from Ristorante Tetsu on Yonaguni Island made a special gluten-free meal for me.

His special roll cake sans gluten.

The easiest way is to forgo the Japanese food experience at restaurants and izakayas, buy yourself a Japanese cookbook, buy the necessary wheat/gluten free substitutes and cook every meal yourself.   I do this often, but I’ve had to spend quite a bit of money via online retailers to get 100% buckwheat soba noodles, wheat/gluten free tamari, etc.  You can always eat veggies, fruits, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, fish, meat, tofu (be careful about which tofu though as some of them do have gluten in them), so maintaining a healthy diet and weight while living in Japan is probably easier than most of your fellow expats who are busy trying every fried morsel they can get their all-you-can-eat Western hands on.  But you want to go out and party with your friends, you say.  Ok, fine.  There are always restaurants, especially the smaller restaurants, that will go out of their way to prepare meals for you.  There is indeed a small, gourmet restaurant even on a remote island like Yonaguni, where the chef will prepare everything without wheat/gluten.  You just have to make certain the chefs here understand that you’re not only allergic to wheat, but you cannot have soy sauce (most people don’t know that wheat is an integral ingredient in soy sauce) or oats, barley or rye (they don’t usually cook with rye, but just make it clear).   If you’re severely intolerant, you cannot do this as cross-contamination is almost always certain.

I found out recently that even the taco rice (which is basically like a burrito bowl: rice, taco meat, salsa, cheese, salad, tomatoes) has wheat in it!  They use a filler with the meat or they marinate it in soy sauce.  This is a good example of foods that seem safe but actually are not.  Mozuku, a delicious, healthy seaweed that is integral in Okinawan cooking, also has hidden wheat in some of its forms (when it’s flavored).

More foods that appear gluten-free but are not.

As for barley, while at one of my school’s during a break, I once mistakenly drank some cold, refreshing mugi cha (barley tea) thinking it was sanpin cha (jasmine tea, which is popular here in Okinawa) and within 20 minutes I had a migraine and no amount of ibuprofen would help while I tried to teach my way through the headache.  I could barely stand up straight and probably should have gone to lie down in the nurses office or gone home, but I try not to miss classes.  So, I recommend that anyone coming to Japan to live or even visit here who has a gluten/wheat intolerance or who is celiac, be very careful and realize that your culinary experience in Japan is going to be very different from your friends and co-workers.  Ultimately, you’re the one who needs to be in control of what you’re eating because other people do not know or understand what it’s like when you consume wheat or gluten unknowingly.  The only people I know who have a good idea are those with food allergies (maybe different from yours, but they understand how you feel if you eat the food).

It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with not being able to eat many foods and while it’s doable in the USA as there are many alternatives, especially organic alternatives, in Japan the concept of gluten/wheat free has not yet caught on.  Online shopping for baking supplies helps, but even online retailers are limited (at least the ones in Japan are).  At the end of the day though, I still can enjoy many types of foods as long as I prepare them myself.  I save the socializing with friends for either restaurants where I know I can safely eat or non-food related fun times.   You can enjoy your time in Japan as much as your wheat-eating friends can.

The most important advice I can give is to learn the kanji (and hiragana/katakana) for soy sauce/shoyu (kanji: 醤油 hiragana: しょうゆ), wheat/ko-mugi (小麦), barley/mugi (麦) and any derivatives from these such as malt (if it has these symbols, it’s a no-go).  Rye/kuro-mugi/rai-mugi ( 燕麦 or ライ麦 ).  Also, oats/embaku ( 燕麦), if you notice have the kanji that link it to wheat, even though oats aren’t supposed to be related.  Learn these and also learn the hiragana and katakana spellings of them as sometimes these alphabets are utilized in ingredient labels instead of the kanji.  Please also double check all of the kanji here with your own electronic or book dictionary.

Another tip is to avoid anything pre-made (ie, sauces, curries, etc) that are seducing you when you enter the big supermarkets.  Stick to the peripheries (the veggies, fruits, fish, meat, rice) and avoid the pre-packaged stuff if you can.   If you’re ever in doubt about whether something has been marinated or prepared with soy sauce, it’s better to ask (actually, it’s better to assume it has been even if it’s a basil marinade).

If you need help in getting started, I’d suggest buying a Japanese cookbook written in English (I use “The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking” by Emi Kazuko as well as “Japanese Meals on the Go:  Bento Boxes” by Naomi Kijima, because I’ve had to make quite a few bento boxes so I could eat during school lunch with the students.  Since I’m living in Okinawa, where the vegetables and foods are very different from mainland Japan, I also use “The Okinawa Diet Plan” to think of Okinawan dishes that I can cook easily while living in Okinawa prefecture.  I’m not on the diet, but it discusses the importance of following traditional Okinawan cooking as well as exercise and it seems very logical.

My first attempt at Okinawan Champeru, a stir-fry dish.

One of my favorite Gluten-Free websites is The Gluten-Free Goddess.  I really enjoy reading Karina’s entries and her recipes are fantastic and accessible (ie, they’re delicious, creative and not difficult to make).  Plus, she’s a very talented writer.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

There are many foods we can’t make if we follow the ingredients step by step, so learning how to substitute with different flours, grains and seasonings,  if it’s possible, is very important.  I substitute rice noodles, rice itself and 100% buckwheat soba for noodle dishes, but I cannot buy these noodles at the stores where I live, so I have to buy them online.   Learning how to find seasonings, flours and grains and gluten-free noodles is also important.  Check with local organic grocery stores, use the FBC (Foreign Buyer’s Club) to import some of your favorite GF/Wheat free foods, favorite seasonings that you know are GF or use the Alishan Organics website for Gluten/Wheat Free organic flours (be careful as not everything in the GF section is GF, though it may be wheat free…read the ingredients).

I hope this helps some of those coming to Japan with these dietary restrictions feel a bit less confused, lost, unhappy or nervous.  I’m not a dietary specialist, just a regular person teaching English in Japan, and this is how I live my life here.  You can enjoy Japan and live Gluten-Free.

(Cross-post from my other site. )

Cheers to your health!

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. P Shadle
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 17:53:19

    Thank you for an informative article! I am coming to Japan for a week and have celiac… it will be a challenge!!

    Reply

  2. autumnaki
    Aug 07, 2013 @ 09:47:26

    I hope you were able to do OK. I feel like eating while traveling in Japan is super difficult. Let me know how you handled it.

    Reply

  3. Sabrina scarry
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 12:55:00

    Thanks for the information. I too live in Okinawa and am celiac. I have found a few places that will try to accommodate my request after reading my triumph card. Mostly though I just eat at home.

    Reply

  4. joachimhollander
    Feb 15, 2014 @ 22:36:59

    I just started follow your blog and read the article above. I live in Sweden and my daughter has Celiac. In Sweden it´s quite easy these days to live a ordinary life with a gluten free diet. She do not need to eat food that are natural free of gluten. I mean she can eat special prepared flour that the gluten has been removed. She are able to eat wheat starch. We also sometimes prepare wok dishes with some tablespoons of Kikkoman soy sauce without any reaction. In Sweden we have a technical research organ that test different products and they have tested the Kikkoman Japanese soy sauce and they can not find any value of wheat in it.

    In Sweden much has happened the last 10 years. When my daughter was born, nearly noone know what it was all abut – now you can ask nearly anyone about it, and they know at least that it has something to do about flour. At the restaurants nearly everywhere you can ask for gluten free dishes and they know what you are talking about. Maybe not the cheapest restaurants, but ordinary. Even the loved and hated fast-food chain McDonald´s offer totally gluten free dishes – including gluten free bread. It´s a good deal for young people in Sweden. We even can get gluten free pizza on some different pizzerias in our city.
    Maybe you are feeling a little sad, that it´s not the same in Japan these days – but also I think you are happy for us. We will travel to Japan in some years (read another post i did) and we will try to find out the best way to “survive” with also food experiences.

    Here are some dishes that I, without any experience should believe we could get gluten free:
    – Sushi
    – Sushimi (with rice)
    – Yakiniku (you can ask for no marination, right?)
    – Yakitori (with salt only)

    Domo arigato!

    Reply

  5. katie
    Jul 30, 2014 @ 21:23:57

    this is SO RELATABLE! Thank you!!

    Reply

  6. Neo
    Jul 07, 2017 @ 02:32:27

    Dang, I just crossed this and I have the very same kind of allergy you does. It’s been 5 years now, that I discoveree my allergies to Gluten, Milk and Dairy products, Soy, Sesame, Shrimp, and many others… Even sugar does make me ill T_T I had Lupus suspicions when I was 12 and life was hell until I found out my health problems were all due to Gluten, Soy and Milk (mostly). I’ve been always wondering what to do when going to Japan because of the allegies, but you’re right about cooking all your meals. I can’t eat outside, no matter where and how people say that they’ll prepare things for you. It always has traces of Gluten or something else that makes me sick, so I gave up on eating out. There are many, many cases of people having cancer when they stop eating gluten, then comes back into eating again. Even if they aren’t allergic, if they stop and get it back in their diet again, they’ll develop this horrible disease, unfortunately… The good point is that I lost a lot of weight and I feel really “light”, very well without eating those delicious things I can’t ;w; but guess that’s that. I learned how to make sushi and temaki on my own and, even without soy sauce, it’s absolutely delicious! There are also recipes for “fake soy sauce” that doesn’t require soy as an ingredient, but I never tried them… Yet :3 guess all we can do is to adapt and fight against the urge to eat what we can’t, in the end. Thank you for writing this article ^_^

    Reply

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