Eating Gluten Free in Japan?

Q: Hi! First off I’ll start with saying how awesome GenkiJapan.net is 😉 It has helped me a whole lot! Your videos are very insightful and always entertaining, so thank you :)  Now on to my question: I have Coeliac Disease which means I can’t eat food/drinks containing gluten, wheat, barley, rye, malt, oats or spelt.. and I was wondering if Coeliac Disease is heard of in Japan, and if there would be many gluten free options, particularly in Tokyo? I know obvious meals would be plain rice, vegetables and grilled meats, but if you have any other meal ideas to add that’d be awesome!   Thanks! – Nikki

A: Hi Nikki,

Thanks for the nice words!

As you’ve probably seen with the other posts about allergies or even vegetarianism, then Japan is very, very much behind the US or Europe. Eating out it will become tricky as “gluten free” is not a word that many people have heard or even if you say the word and explain it in Japanese they wouldn’t understand e.g. many people would just think “oh these foreigners, I’ll give them some Japanese food and they’ll be fine!”

For example during the summer I had a friend’s son who’s allergic to eggs, all eggs, but the travel agent for their school trip didn’t get the concept of not being able to eat some food so just said that he was allergic to raw eggs and cooked ones were fine!

The good news though is that you can buy anything in Tokyo so for home cooking you will be OK.  Plus all the packaging has clear labels on so you can see what is in everything you buy in the supermarket.

I hope that helps a little!

6 Responses to “Eating Gluten Free in Japan?”

  1. Response to Nikki’s question about being coeliac in Japan:

    I am a coeliac in Japan and have never met a Japanese person who has heard of gluten, yet alone coeliac. Technically coeliac disease is not an allergy (it means we can’t digest gluten), but for the sake of understanding, the best way to explain it in Japanese is as a “bread allergy”.

    As Richard says, most people look confused and then generally accept it as some kind of weird foreigner thing.

    The good news is that most meals in Japan are served with a bowl of white rice (gluten is only in some brown or sticky rice). For noodles, udon have gluten, but soba noodles are made of buckwheat which is gluten free – although it can be hard to know for sure until it’s too late.

    If you go to the expensive international supermarkets like Peacock or Nissen, you will find imported products with labeling in English and many of these have the gluten-free symbol.

    Overall, being coeliac in Japan may get you a few strange looks but it’s totally doable.

    Cheers!
    kconsciousness

  2. Sarah says:

    Response to Nikki’s question about being coeliac in Japan:

    I am gluten intolerant (and very sensitive to it) which is sometimes lumped in with Coeliac Disease depending on doctors and where you live. However, the main issue, the avoidance of gluten is the same. I lived in Japan for three years and thought you might find some of my experiences useful.

    One thing I learned the hard way was that Japanese people usually have no clue what it is and trying to explain it will normally just confuse them and get you some really odd looks. For eating out or at a friend’s house, the easiest thing I found to do was say you have a 麦(むぎ) allergy and that it includes things like wheat 小麦(こむぎ), barely 大麦(おおむぎ), and rye ライ麦.

    It is also a good idea to memorize the kanji for these words or have them written down so you can check labels yourself. Also, just about any time you see~麦 on a label, you don’t want to eat/drink it. If you know the above kanji, you should be just about set since things like malt, malted sugars, things derived from wheat/barley/rye, etc. usually contain the麦 kanji in their name. The main exceptions I can think of are soy sauce (which is sometime listed as soy sauce and not broken into ingredients), starch syrup 水あめ( usually made from either potato or barley and they often don’t tell which), and malt which can be listed asモルト (though normally it’s written this way 麦芽).

    I also found that it was simpler to ask at restaurants if they had food you could eat, either at the door or better yet call ahead. Usually, there will be something you can eat or a cook will agree to whip up something just for you. However, there are places where literally there isn’t anything you can eat on the menu and they either can’t or won’t make something special for you. Then there are some places which will turn you away simply because they are scared of making you sick. In my experience, they tended to be few and far between, but it did happen.

    Keep in mind that many of the soy sauces in Japan contain wheat. Many, many people in Japan have no clue…including those you think would. It is usually a good idea to specifically mention you can’t have it before placing an order and be prepared to argue. I actually had a cook come out and tell me that soy sauce had no wheat. I asked for proof, i.e. let me see the bottle…where I pointed out小麦 for him on the ingredients list. Talk about awkward, but he thanked me for teaching him (Think very uncomfortable looking blond foreigner, highly amused Japanese friends, and strange ‘covert’ looks from some of the surrounding patrons – it was just a very odd experience) and then he cooked me an awesome meal with one of the best herb seasonings I ever tasted.

    So, moving on, soy sauce is one of the main seasonings in Japan. It shows up in lots of things. I kept running into trouble with grilled foods. They’d cook it on the grill, add a dash of soy sauce, and serve. It took me a while to figure out why I kept getting sick. Anytime you see a dark colored or soy sauce-ish looking sauce show up on your food, ask!

    In the end, the best thing to do is ask, always ask. You might have to explain why and apologize to be ‘polite,’ but ask anyway…unless you’re willing to risk getting sick for the sake of face. I had people suggest and sometimes even bring me breads, cakes, cookies, pastas and all kinds of other things and be told they were gluten-free…Just to be safe always, always ask what’s in it. If they can’t tell, make them find out. If they can’t find out, eat at your own risk. I can count on one hand the number of times I was brought one of the above items and it turned out to be gluten-free.

    Noodles can be kind of tricky and you have to watch them. Usually, you can’t eat them. The exceptions being rice and buckwheat, but you have to check the ingredients on those. Some are safe and some aren’t. For any noodle meal, always ask about the soy sauce. Again, it’s a popular seasoning and can show up in the broth.

    You asked for some food suggestions. The biggest ones that come to mind are sushi and sashimi. The raw is almost always safe. I prefer mine with wasabi and salt, but you can always bring a gluten-free soy sauce with you from home or you might be able to find one at a foreign foods store. Things like omelets with rice or オムライス as the Japanese say should be safe too, but remember to check for soy sauce. The only other thing I can think of at the moment is tofu, but again you have to be wary of soy sauce.

    Nikki, I don’t know what your Japanese level is, but before going to Tokyo, you should consider scripting out how you’re going to explain your problem to say to a waiter or a store clerk.

    You can also check around the internet, I’ve heard some websites have print out cards that you can take to a restaurant that will explain the problem in Japanese. I make no promises to how accurate they are since I’ve never used one.

    I hope this helps.

    Sarah

  3. Lilian says:

    Hey,

    I just want to start off with saying that having an allergy in Japan can be really bothersome since they somehow aren’t used to the concept of not being able to tolerate some foods. Im allergic against diary products and gluten, but fortunately I can read the labels.

    My top tip: Always, always, and without fail, read the labels. Some processed food contains things that you wouldnt imagine… so just check. If you cant read kanji or japanese, at least memorize a couple of important kanjis.
    This website has a printable table with help for
    allergic ppl in Japan:

    http://www.japan-i.se/nagoya/allergy.html

    Just bring it with you if youre unsure!

    Hope things will work out for ya

    Lilian

  4. Sondy says:

    Hi Richard,

    I was in Japan for seven weeks and I’m really sensitive to gluten and MSG. Like some of the previous comments said, the Japanese generally aren’t entirely aware of what’s in their food. Soy sauce is out, soba noodles are out (they’re mostly made of wheat flour, as buckwheat flour’s expensive), and even some foods that in America or the UK are gluten-free have wheat in them in Japan.

    I wrote this post to help out folks like you when traveling in Japan:

    http://blog.sondy.com/2012/01/eating-gluten-free-in-japan/

    You can print out the middle section and give it to your hosts to describe what Japan-specific foods you can and cannot eat. Avoid curry, cutlet, and anything with a brown sauce (eel), and you should be generally pretty good.

    Please let me know if this is helpful! がんばる!

    – ソンディ

  5. Richard says:

    Thank you Sondy!

  6. Ariel says:

    Cross contamination is a huge issue here too. Honestly, I almost never eat out here… only at small restaurants where I know the staff very well because I know they will take the required steps to insure a gluten-free cooking area as well as ingredients.

    http://www.nexgeneats.com/s.komatsu/tokyo/concept.html

    this is the website of a restaurant in Roppongi that *used to serve* gluten free foods… but anyway, they explain it really well in Japanese. You could bring a print out, or at least learn some good key phrases etc to try and help you out.

    Also, one word of warning… the last time I got gluten-ed was when I ordered お茶 at a restaurant and was served mugi-cha… ask about everything, least you get sick :(

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