Understanding What You are Eating: アミノ酸

As someone who has lived in Japan, who moved to Japan without much prior language experience, I know how daunting it may be to get yourself situated properly there.  On top of this, if you have Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance, of you need to follow a gluten free diet for other autoimmune diseases/issues, being able to know what is in the foods there can seem daunting.  In prior posts, I have recommended that you obtain gluten free travelers cards that list foods in Japanese and English.  This helps the Japanese chefs (or anyone who may be helping you navigate Japanese cuisine safely) know what you can and cannot eat.  One thing that I remember facing over and over again while living in Japan was the question, “but what can you eat?”  This was almost always after I told them that I couldn’t eat wheat, barley, oats, rye or anything that was derived from these grains.  Of course, we can eat quite a bit of food and most of it is very good food for us (in some ways, if we’re following a whole foods paleo/primal-like diet, we’re ahead of the pack, in terms of eating healthy), but in this modern era, most prepared foods have some form of gluten in them.  Unfortunately, this goes doubly so in Japan. 

I’ve written before about hidden sources of gluten in Japanese food.  Soy sauce is obviously one of the main culprits that make enjoying Japanese food difficult for us.  Another source comes from hidden starches in the form of でん粉 or でんぷん (pronounced denpun) as thickeners and fillers.  The source that often trips those of us up the most though is アミノ酸 (aminosan), the Japanese term for MSG. 

アミノ酸 is a flavoring that is used to create umami in a number of foods.  A fellow JET who lives in Japan wrote an informative article about its history.  It’s what gives convenience store onigiri their particular flavor (and I’ve written before that you should avoid these like the plague for this reason, even if someone tells you that they don’t contain wheat/gluten). I’ve had long discussions with people about this who will tell me that アミノ酸 does not have gluten in it, will proceed to eat salmon or umeboshi onigiri that are seemingly wheat-free on the label, but then write to tell me that they’ve somehow mysteriously been glutened. Sometimes it takes bad experiences to be able to learn, I guess. I do not recommend taking such risks while you’re traveling through Japan though, unless you want to have a miserabl experience.  

アミノ酸 sometimes comes in the form of salt at restaurants and can be used in anything that you consume at restaurants.  For example, I once went with friends to a steak restaurant.  After showing him my card, the chef seemed willing and ready to create a meal for me.   He went through all of his ingredients and said they were safe, but on double checking he realized that a herb seasoning that he’d created also included アミノ酸 in it.  If he hadn’t gone back to inspect all of his ingredients, the meal would have contained gluten and I would have left their with a meal that was on its way to making me feel unwell. 

I’ve had another experience where I’ve asked for table salt and it’s come in the form of Ajinomoto (味の素株式会社) salt-like seasoning and I’ve mistakenly used it to season my foods with.  Be aware of this form of gluten in Japan, because the majority of Japanese (including anyone cooking your food) do not realize that it contains gluten in it.

My recommendation is that you cook your own foods unless you find a restaurant this has a dedicated gluten-free kitchen or one where you’ve come to know the chef and trust them to prepare food for you.

Good luck in your culinary and cultural adventures while living and visiting Japan. 

Hototogisu Bakery and Farm (農園菓子工房ホトトギス)

This past August I interviewed Sara Yoshihara, the co-owner of Hototogisu Bakery and Farm (農園菓子工房ホトトギス) which produces gluten-free bread and baked goods as well as organic, locally produced vegetables.  They are located in Okayami City, though their goods can be found in Tokyo and Osaka.   
My name is Sara, and I moved to Japan about ten years ago with my husband, whose home this is. When we moved here from California, we decided to buy a house in the country-side and take up farming and…some other things, to be determined after we got settled. As it happened, shortly after we moved a neighbor introduced us to a community kitchen where our bread-baking hobby quickly became a bread-baking business. In 2008 we opened Hototogisu Bakery (very gluten-y bread edition), baking bread using our farm-fresh ingredients. However, about two years in to life as a full-time baker, I (with the help of a dermatologist) realized that a gluten free diet was the only way I was going to hold on to any health. We struggled to find ways to continue our by then (mildly) successful bakery, but at the end of 2012 it was clear that the only way I could stay involved and healthy was to make the move to a gluten free bakery. We sold off the equipment we could no longer use, cleaned, scrubbed, and cleaned some more to remove all traces of wheat, rye and barley from the building and in 2013 re-opened as Hototogisu Gluten Free Bakery and Farm, with mobile deli. Over the last few years we’ve developed quite a few recipes based on our own homegrown rice flour and eggs, plus beans and veggies in season. Our fresh menu changes with the seasons (and our moods), and we serve gluten free food to allergy folk and allergy-free folk alike. It pleases me greatly that we’ve been lucky enough to hold on to quite a few of the customers who joined us in our bread days. Our brownie lines are out and about in the world, on shelves in Tokyo and Osaka as well as here in Okayama, and we expect to start distributing a new line of gluten free goodies this fall…!

How many years have you resided in Japan?

I’ve been in Japan just over ten years now.

How many years have you lived with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity?

I first went gluten free about five years ago, in 2010, though in retrospect gluten had probably been a problem for many years by that point. I went off gluten while here in Japan; I had help from a dermatologist in identifying gluten as the problem but I have yet to meet a doctor who has heard of celiac disease, much less offer testing or advice on adopting a gluten free diet. There has been a great deal of trial and error these five years!

What is your bakery/farm’s approach to offering food for those with cd/gs? What does your bakery/farm offer?

All of our products are strictly gluten free out of necessity (to keep me healthy) but they are also developed to be so good that people without food allergies will choose our products (this, too is a necessity, though a financial one). We only make products that are better, or at least as good as, the wheaty equivalent. For this reason our menu is limited, but what we do make meets our high standards.

Outside of the gluten free by default nature of our products, we focus on using ingredients we grow on the farm. Homegrown rice flour, black soybeans and eggs are the backbone of our packaged goods, and our fresh goods vary by the seasons according to what is coming out of the garden. We choose our other ingredients carefully and don’t add colorings, flavorings or preservatives to our foods.

Our primary far-wandering packaged products right now are brownies. You can find our chocolate brownies and kurokinako brownies (very dark roasted black soybean powder stands in for the cocoa powder) and rusks in Tokyo and Osaka. Our rice flour is also available in the Tokyo area. Here in Okayama our brownies are in a number of shops around the prefecture and most weekends will find us at various farmers’ markets with brownies, baked custard, donuts, chicken and vegetable tempura, quiche, merengue cookies, cream puffs and starting this fall, a line of puffed brown rice (pongashi) goodies ranging from the usual sweet snack to spicy brown rice and beans snacks. Everything we make is absolutely gluten free, with no gluten-y foods allowed in the bakery at all, and much is dairy-free, though of course the facility also processes dairy.

How do you think Japan can become more friendly for those with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity?

In my experience, the level of awareness about food allergies within Japan in general is alarmingly low (of course I know that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are not quite the same thing as food allergies medically, but from an awareness standpoint, I think they stand together). I personally think this is something that ought to be addressed in schools, as with the prevalence of school lunches and cooking classes in elementary school there is ample opportunity, and as food allergies are most common (and rising)  among children, the need is there. Beyond that, I’d like to see regulations requiring “shared equipment” and “shared facility” statements. Without that it is very difficult to determine the risk of any given food being contaminated, and it is very easy to imagine such oversights going unnoticed by people buying food for themselves and by chefs preparing foods for people with allergies.

What challenges does the individual with cd/gs face in Japan that they do not face in North America?
I’ve actually not been back to the States since going on a gluten free diet, so I can’t speak very authoritatively on this. I do find, though, that if I’m looking at a food imported from the US I can usually do a quick google to determine if it is a “safe” product for me; even searching in Japanese that information just isn’t available for Japanese products. Beyond that, I think the issue of visibility is probably the biggest – I am constantly explaining the severity of celiac disease and doing my best not to cause offence as I turn down offers of food. Two of my siblings back home also keep structly gluten free but they frequently eat out and buy pre-prepared foods, while I haven’t eaten in a restauraunt in several years now, after too many meals out gone wrong. (I might note here that I fall on the very, very cautious end of the spectrum, trying to eliminate all risk of accidentally consuming gluten – I gather there are other Japan-based folks who do take more risks and probably live fuller lives as a result!)

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