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!)

Gluten Free in Tokyo

This is the first in a series of guest posts from readers and bloggers who are living in Japan and following a gluten free diet.  If you’re interested in writing for Gluten Free in Japan, please query with an email that includes your article idea(s).  

Today’s guest post is by Kari.  She currently lives in Aomori Prefecture with her husband, Ben, and her dog, Seamus.  She was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2012 and a corn allergy in 2013.  She and her husband love to travel and photograph their adventures together.  Kari’s blogs at The Part of Everything.

Having Celiac disease is not easy, and having it in a country that does not really recognize it as an issue makes for an interesting situation. While I definitely feel lucky that we figured all of this out while living in a country where the people are extremely helpful and accommodating, it doesn’t help things that most Japanese have never heard of “celiac” or “gluten” and have no idea which foods contain the ingredients I need to avoid. Explaining a “wheat allergy” is simply not enough, since there is hidden gluten in just about everything here.

My diagnosis was a few years ago, and my husband and I have finally figured out our “system” here at home. Traveling, though, has been a different story. We originally moved to Japan so we would be able to travel, experience cultures, and see the world. These goals were easy to accomplish pre-celiac, but they have become incredibly difficult now. When we travel these days, 2/3 of our baggage contains food in case we can’t find restaurants that will serve me (this has happened – while it’s frustrating, I’d rather they tell me up front they can’t serve me than to serve me food that will make me sick).

On our first trip to Tokyo, I really enjoyed the city but didn’t plan to visit again. It was too big, and there were too many people. We added other Japanese cities to our list of places to visit, not envisioning a return to Tokyo in the near future.

Then, celiac happened.

Our first post-diagnosis visit to Tokyo was very different than our previous time. My husband’s parents were coming to visit and we had plans to join them in Tokyo for a week before traveling with them back up to our home in Aomori. This trip, I had to research EVERYTHING ahead of time. Our schedules and destinations revolved around the few “safe” restaurants I had researched. The time leading up to our departure was full of anxiety, as there were not many resources and blogs out there to help. Those that did exist gave conflicting information. (Examples include whether plain combini onigiri or senbei are always safe bets… FYI, they’re not.) Looking back, though, our trip wasn’t half bad! We found a few restaurants that were able to accommodate my dietary restrictions, and even one that specifically had fluent English-speakers to help in situations like mine. The city has become one of my “safe places” and we are always excited to travel there now. We have since visited Tokyo multiple times, and continue to go back to our tried-and-true favorite places.

Sadly, some of these restaurants are no longer open. A few are, though, and I wanted to make sure to write about them in case this information can help anyone traveling to Tokyo with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.  I am extremely sensitive to cross contamination, and have never gotten sick at the following restaurants.

The first restaurant I’d highly recommend is Gonpachi. I have visited several locations of this Tokyo restaurant, and haven’t gotten sick at any of them, but my favorite is the location in Nishi Azabu. I have written about this place before, but didn’t really go into much detail about their allergy protocols. I was a baby celiac at that point, and I’ve since learned that I was doing so many things incorrectly at that point. I have, however, been back to this restaurant several times since, and have still had wonderful experiences every time.

While Gonpachi is an izakaya style restaurant, they use very good quality meats and vegetables in their cooking. Their noodles (which aren’t gluten free) are made by hand each day, and they try to source from local farms. I won’t eat at most izakaya style restaurants, but this one is my exception because of these reasons. Another reason is that Gonpachi Nishi Azabu has an “allergy specialist” to help people like me figure out what they can eat safely.

At the time of the writing of this blog, Gonapchi Nishi Azabu’s allergy specialist is named Teresa. She is fabulous to work with and we always check before heading to Tokyo to ensure she will be working when we visit. Teresa speaks English and is well-versed in finding foods that are safe for those with allergies. She is willing to go back and forth between the customer and the chefs to ensure that the correct ingredients and protocols are taken to keep someone from getting contaminated.

If you go, make sure you ask her to remind the cooking staff to clean the surfaces before cooking your food.

Here are a few of my favorite things off the menu:

  • Asparagus wrapped in bacon. This is quintessential izakaya food if you eat pork. So delicious!
  • Rice bowl. Gonpachi has a few rice bowls, but none of them (as they are on the menu) are safe for someone who is very sensitive. They will, however, make one for you that is, as long as you let them know exactly what you need! I get a modified “takana meshi” – without the pickled mustard leaves and with an addition of grilled chicken and fresh avocado. They bring out all the seaweed and spices separately, so I can see exactly what will go into my bowl before it’s done. I mix it up and add my safe soy sauce myself, and it’s delicious!
  • Gyutan. I love beef tongue when it’s done correctly, and it’s definitely done correctly here. I ask for the gyutan without the sesame oil, as I have not been able to confirm that it’s safe. I just use my safe soy sauce for dipping instead.
  • Chicken on a skewer. I’m not sure that this one is on the menu by itself, but they’ve never had an issue with making it for me. I love yakitori and rarely get to order it, because it’s so difficult to find restaurants with safe cooking practices in terms of cross contamination! I order it shiodake (with salt only) and then use my soy sauce.
  • Yuzu Lime Iced Tea. I look forward to coming to Gonpachi for the yuzu tea more than anything else, especially in the summer. It’s so delicious! The first post-celiac time we visited Gonpachi, I was very nervous about trying this again, but I’ve never had a reaction from it!

 All in all, Gonpachi is definitely worth a visit!

My other favorite restaurant in Tokyo is Moti. This is an Indian restaurant near Roppongi Station. The owner speaks some English and while he doesn’t know much about gluten or celiac, he is very willing to go over all ingredients with you. I can’t say I’ve branched out as far as the menu goes, because the butter chicken curry is so good that I get it every time.

 We have visited every six months or so, and the owners always remember us when we walk in. Just make sure you check every ingredient and let the owners know what you’re avoiding so they can check it. Also, ask for rice instead of the naan and you’ll be good to go. They have offered sticky rice in the past, so you will need to make sure you opt for plain rice (the sticky rice is not safe).

 I hope this is able to help you as you navigate your way through Tokyo! Let me know if you have any great gluten free experiences at either of these (or any other) restaurants in Tokyo!

Blog Stats

  • 115,599 hits