Thursday, April 07, 2016
Gluten Free Traveling in Japan
Next month I'm headed back to Japan for a short trip with my family. It will be my daughter's first time to see this country she's heard so much about. At six years of age, she's already such a Japanophile. She's been known to tell people that she's Japanese as she used to live there in her mummy's tummy.
Since moving back to Australia, wow, seven years ago, I have been diagnosed as being coeliac and so has my daughter. Eating gluten free in Japan wasn't something I had to think about too much when I lived there except for when my mother (also coeliac) came to visit. I have been back three times for holidays since diagnosis and learn more each time I go. Here's what I've learnt, in hopes to help anyone else traveling over there...
Let's face it, being coeliac we've become the kings and queens of preparation and research before we go anywhere, if we want to eat without getting sick that is. Japan can be a challenge in terms of eating gluten free and as a previous lover of all food Japanese I miss being able to just walk into a restaurant and get my favourite grilled eel or tempura prawns on udon. That being said, there is so much more about the country to enjoy that I wouldn't for a second let a sensitive gut stop me from going.
Gluten Free Card in Japanese
I found this card invaluable. I would use it at convenience stores, at supermarkets and at restaurants. Wait staff would take it in to show the chef who would then let me know what, if anything was suitable and cook it up especially for me. For Japan, the most common source of gluten will be the soy sauce that many dishes are cooked with. For that reason, I chose to use a card from Select Wisely but if you do a web search there are other ones available as well.
To be honest, when I'm traveling over there for a few weeks I don't want to be spending valuable temple tramping and fabric shopping time on trying to find something to eat. I always take over a lot of snacks that I can keep in my bag. I usually take muesli bars, nuts (of course you can buy nuts over there, but if I take my own I know I don't have to worry about checking for extra ingredients or cross contamination), cereal, this trip I'm going to pack single serves of flavoured tuna, biscuits and rice crackers. Oh, and packing your own gluten free soy sauce is a great idea too!
Book your accommodation
You've got to have somewhere to sleep of course, but I spend a lot of extra time choosing my hotels. For the most part, I have found travel a lot easier by basing myself in one city (Nagoya for me as it's close to friends and in the middle of the main island), ordering a JR rail pass so I can travel on the Shinkansen as much as I like and booking an apartment with a full kitchen. Sometimes these apartments are only available if you're staying for at least a week. Booking through AirBNB is another option. Otherwise I try to book a hotel room that at least has a microwave and a small cooktop. When I have a kitchen I have a lot more freedom. I go to a local supermarket and buy fresh ingredients so I still get to enjoy the local flavours but know that it has been safely prepared. I often will also make up a Japanese "bento" box for lunch so then I only need to worry about eating out for dinner.
The other option is to stay in a place that caters for westerners. This trip we're staying in a hotel in Tokyo for a couple of days that has a large buffet breakfast with lots of fruit and will also cook up fresh omelets for us each day. One place I stayed in, a Japanese business hotel, cooked me boiled eggs served with salad and tea every morning. Or, on the flipside, if you stay in a traditional Ryokan, your host might be willing to prepare a dish of rice, pickles and grilled fish (without soy sauce) for your breakfast. Yum!
Convenience Stores and Supermarkets
Your local 7-11 or any other of the convenience stores found on so many of the street corners in Japan can be a source for gluten free food. Many of them sell pre-boiled eggs (choose the ones with the shells still on them) which became a standard breakfast on one of my visits. They also have pre-cooked rice that they'll heat up for you, and salads with the dressing packed separately (don't use the dressing). Some of the rice balls are gluten free, if in doubt check with the staff using your coeliac card.
At the supermarket, as well as fresh fruit and ingredients to cook with, there will be some pre-prepared food. There you can usually find sushi, grilled fish and sashimi.
Another option, especially if you're in a large city, is to find a foreign food store. There they will have foods from around the world and depending on where they originate from, there will be an ingredients list in English. I usually go here to top up on snacks.
Japanese Foods to Eat
Sushi becomes my staple diet while I'm in Japan. Not all sushi is gluten free though. Check with the sushi bar first that they aren't using sushi vinegar that contains wheat. I also check on the mayonnaise and the wasabi. Most places the soy sauce will be a no-go, but if you're in a high-end sushi bar they may actually use a wheat-free tamari sauce instead so you can check if you like. Then check with the staff (again, whip out that card of yours again), to check which ones are ok. If you stick with the prawns (ebi) and sashimi ones you shouldn't have a problem. Even if you're in a sushi train type environment, you can often get them to make it especially for you.
Also known in Japan as "Korean BBQ". This can be a bit of a splurge but is so delicious. You will be given a menu of raw meat to choose from and to be honest, they all look the same. You can also order plates of vegetables. Here though, make sure that you ask for no marinade, no sauce and just salt and pepper only. Then they bring the raw food out to you and you cook on your own grill.
Just be careful to check that it is a 100% buckwheat noodle and that it isn't served up with soy sauce.
This is delicious char-grilled chicken on a stick and you can order it with just salt (no marinade). Be careful though, it may be cooked on the same grill with other gluten-containing foods so there is a higher chance of cross-contamination.
A traditional rice cake sweet with a marshmallow-like consistency. It's filling often contains red beans but my favourite during strawberry season comes filled with the sweet. Be careful to check that it isn't the version with sponge cake and get someone to help you check the ingredients. I found some use wheat starch, some don't but if you find the right one and you have a sweet tooth, these are heavenly!
You'll find these all over Kyoto and especially in souvenir stores at Kyoto station. They are a traditional sweet made from rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. They come in two versions - "Nama Yatsuhashi" (raw) which will be a in a triangular shape with a filling (often bean paste, but check ingredients as newer versions may not have a gf filling) and the cooked version is a little, hard biscuit with a curve to it.
Places to Eat
This is an "Australian themed" steakhouse and found in a number of places in Japan. It's my go-to place to eat in Nagoya. The staff usually speak good English and I can get a steak and vegetables gluten free.
Another western restaurant with locations around Japan where I've always been able to get a delicious gluten free meal made for me. It's my go-to place in Kyoto.
Japan Crepe in Harajyuku (Tokyo)
I haven't actually been here yet, never knowing the countless times that I passed it that their crepes are gluten free. This one is booked in for my trip next month.
If you get desperate, McDonalds is a fall back. In most outlets the fries are cooked in their own oil (check first though) and you can get a meat patty on its own. Be aware though that often in Japanese culture they don't like veering from the menu so I had a bit of explaining to do and one store was happy to do it while another one I could only get the fries.
As most Indian curries are naturally gluten-free I've found this can be an easy place to eat out. Just explain (often here English is better than Japanese) your dietary needs and they will be most accommodating.
Dotted all around the country, they often have basics on the menu so check to see if the cook is willing to make something gluten free for you.
This is a Japanese curry chain resturant that is dotted all over the country, I'm told they have menus in English and now have an allergy free curry. You can read more about it here.
Little Bird Gluten Free Cafe - Tokyo
I haven't tried it but would like to on this trip. You can find out more about them here.
Things to watch out for
This tea is not to be confused with green tea, as it looks similar. Mugi-cha is made from barley so to be avoided.
Ahhh... rice cakes. You'd think they'd be an easy option right? Sadly no. Many of them had soy sauce in their glaze. There certainly are some gluten free ones but you have to search a bit and don't assume that they naturally will be.
Mixed Rice "Healthy Rice"
When I was last living in Japan, "healthy rice" was a bit of a fashion. It actually contains barley grains, so stick to plain white rice.
Celiac Travel has a great post including the Kanji for gluten-containing ingredients here.
Legal Nomads has a comprehensive guide on eating gluten free in Japan including a list of restaurants that I'm going to enjoy testing on my upcoming trip here.
Ctrl Alt Eat has a lovely read on gluten free eating in Japan here.
If you've traveled to Japan and eaten gluten free, I'd love to hear your tips and favourite places to go. I will try to update this post after my next visit too and add in anything I new I have discovered. Happy travelling!