A couple of years ago one of my clients contacted me about coming along on one of my Japanese cuisine and culture tours.
She was keen to join us but was concerned as she is coeliac. To be honest I was a little worried too… how the heck was I going to get her around Japan sans gluten?? Noodles, tempura, nama fu ( a personal favourite – FRESH WHEAT GLUTEN!) and tonkatsu???
So I started doing a little research in order to assure the both of us that it would be ok. Turns out her responses to small amounts of gluten were bearable for her – so we did just fine ! She had a wonderful time and was able to eat and enjoy most things that the rest of the group were having – GF ingredient replacement where possible.
Just this weekend gone I was asked a ‘gluten-free in Japan’ question by a friend which had me digging out my pre-trip notes …which in turn inspired me to share the information here with you too…. which then made me realise I’d opened a bloody can of gluten-free worms!
BEFORE I BEGIN….. Please let me preface below with the fact I am not an expert in this field so make sure you do your own investigations before you travel – this is just a starting point! That is to say that I’ve broken ground and done a little digging but it’s up to you how deep you wanna go….
Eating gluten-free in Japan turns out to be.. possible… and eating low gluten rather doable in fact- but being prepared beforehand is essential so here’s a few tips to help the gluten challenged:
Firstly – for your info – gluten in Japanese is FUSHITSU or GURUTEN...
Now – you already know that wheat will be an issue of course – so the first thing to do is let servers/chefs/restaurants etc know (preferably in advance for fancy joints) that you have a ‘wheat allergy’ (or wheat and soy allergy depending on your level of tolerance – see below) – saying the 2 simple words below whilst pointing to yourself should get you across the line!
Repeat after me ‘Komugi arerugii’ … perhaps sound it out… Koh Moo Gee – ah reh roo ghee – literally means ‘ Wheat allergy’
And Insert FUSHITSU/ GURUTEN (gluten) instead of KOMUGI if needs be…
**By the way – Komugi is the generic word term but just to confuse things (and just to be safe!) wheat flour can also sometimes be called Kyoriki, Churiki and Hakuriki – got that!?
Secondly – you’ll need to know what foods typically contain wheat/gluten :
- Soy and Shoyu/Soy sauce – but not all are equal…
The difficult thing with soy and soy products is that they are used extensively in Japanese cuisine (eg – soy sauce for dipping, in marinades and glazes and added to many dishes from dressings to soups to simmered dishes/hotpots etc, soy beans – fresh as a snack /salads, dried in a range of items including miso and also in kinako (roasted soy bean powder commonly used with Japanese sweets) and tofu/tofu products made from soy milk) so… erm…. best of luck with that…
Now that wasn’t fair was it… so… (deep breath) it seems the issue is not with the soy itself -ie soy beans do not naturally contain gluten – however some crops are rotated with wheat crops and can therefore be cross contaminated with the wheat’s gluten
If you have a way to assess whether the soy is certified gluten-free then yay for you…
Now – Tamari is ‘wheat free soy’… but even some tamari have a small bit of gluten in them so look specifically for WHEAT FREE!! maybe buy some before you go if you think you might need to carry it for in room sushi snacks …. Argh….
Also some tofu is gluten-free – you’d hope that if you were buying it made from scratch from only the highest quality, locally grown soy beans in a tofu specialist spot in say Kyoto ..that it would be safe… it may well be that there is gluten-free tofu available readily all over Japan but I can’t personally guarantee that for you…
If your gluten intolerance is life threatening then if I were you I’d be doing a helluva lotta research on this beforehand and getting someone fluent in Japanese to write you a note to carry with you explaining that you cannot eat anything with gluten or soy which might have been contaminated by gluten – or just seriously avoid everything you think MIGHT contain it.. that’s probably your best bet to be honest!
anyhoo… SHOYU / TOFU / DAIZU (dried soybeans) / EDAMAME (fresh soybeans) etc ARERUGII…. memorise ’em all alongside KOMUGI ARERUGII above
I’m really, really glad I’m ok with this gluten thing … the gluten-free caper is a tough one in Japan!
2.Wheat Noodles... naturally . Predominantly udon, somen and ramen. Sadly even soba noodles which are made from buckwheat, which IS gluten-free , often include wheat flour to give them flexibility.
The upside is that SOME Soba shops make their noodles with 100% buckwheat – so keep an eye out for them – nutty and nutritious!
3. Tempura – yes the crunchy batter is made with wheat flour however if you let the restaurant know well in advance they can usually swap it for a non gluten flour – get your hotel concierge or a friend who speaks Japanese to arrange this for you
4. Tonkatsu – not only are the crisp panko breadcrumbs made from wheat flour but the pork are likely coated in wheat flour before being egged and crumbed. Some Tonkatsu restaurants serve other pork centric dishes too – such as Kakuni (pork belly simmered in a sweet soy broth) or grilled pork dishes (butayaki) or sauteed/simmered dishes such as shogayaki – pork with ginger. So do check the menu closely – worse case scenario will have you filling up on cabbage, rice and miso soup!!
5. Croquettes – see Tonkatsu coating
6. Karaage – marinated and fried chicken – may contain wheat flour in the coating but it may also be something like potato starch so check before you dive in…
7. Fu and Namafu – wheat gluten (usually in dried form but sometimes available fresh or nama) can frequently pop up in simmered dishes (particularly in winter) such as soup or hotpots and is very popular in Shojin Ryori ( buddhist vegan cuisine ) as it tends to soak up other flavours easily making it great filler) . However sometimes namafu features on its own – topped with miso for example. Quite delish but obviously you’ll be avoiding this delicacy .. However, depending on your level of gluten intolerance, perhaps it might just be enough to surreptitiously scoop it out and discard – so you can finish the rest of the dish and not feel uncomfortable – and avoid embarrassing your host.
8. Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki and the like…. yep full of glutenish goodness as with all konomon (wheat flour foods) so probably easiest to avoid unless you are at a very modern establishment which can accommodate with gluten-free flour.. you never-never know….
9. Some Japanese Sweets – such as dorayaki (the round ‘gong’ cakes which look like little pancake sandwiches filled with red beans or sometimes custard or cream) – yep just avoid those… and be wary of others.
However – many Japanese sweets are made with rice flour, glutinous rice flour etc – so they should be safe but all the same – make sure you let them know about your ‘komugi arerugii’!!
10. Senbei /rice crackers – yes they contain rice or glutinous rice flour or ground rice etc but some may contain wheat flour so do check rather than assume…
**yeah, that’s right – although it might sound like it contains gluten – glutinous rice is gluten-free baby! yippee!!
11. Kare / Japanese curry – thickened with ‘roux’ probably means it contains wheat flour so I’d avoid it if your tolerance is low to zero.
12. Dumplings and the like – gyoza etc – best to avoid to be safe – but certain ‘dumplings’ or manju in Japan may be made from a ground up vegetable or meat mixed with a type of gluten-free flour so it is worthwhile investigating – you might get lucky!
13. Mugi or oomugi (barley) – does contain gluten but I read somewhere that new studies propose it doesn’t have the same effect as gluten from other sources? So might be worth doing some research of your own on this as it does tend to turn up in miso (and therefore soup and stews) , some sweets, and is also used in some pickling agents (and therefore present in certain pickles!) and there is a popular tea too which is based on mugi – ie mugi-cha
14. I also just read that malt syrup can be used in MIZU AME (a sweet sauce used in confectionary/desserts) so keep an eye out for that – my thoughts are this is probably only in commercial brands – not in homemade sauces made in traditional sweets shops but best to check if you are concerned
Look I could go on and on with all the stuff you can’t eat because – well I think we’ve already assessed that most Japanese foods in Japan could well be problematic….. but let’s focus a bit more on the stuff you should seek out..
1.Sashimi – just avoid the soy sauce if it is an issue – unless they can guarantee it is wheatfree (or quietly pull out that teensy bottle of tamari you are carrying)
2.Sushi – for the most part this should be ok in respectable joints – however some sushi is pre brushed with soy by the chef – so you had better start practicing your allergy stance….
3. yakitori – as long as you go for the SHIO (salt) version instead of the TARE (thickened sauce containing soy sauce) – good yakitori joints will ask you whether you want shio or tare or ASSUME SHIO unless you ask for tare
4. other yakimono (grilled dishes – seafood, meat, veggies) – as long as no soy sauce is added – yakiniku or teppanyaki joints are a good place to try but avoid the sauces ( or byo !)
5. many pickles will be fine – eg narazuke are pickles made with sake lees – aged longer than many pickles they are naturally darker in colour (ie not soy!), sweet and nutty. These, served in a fancy , modern ‘smoked foods’ joint – are then smoked and served with cream cheese – try to avoid pickles made with miso (misozuke)
6. goma dofu – sesame tofu – is made with a gluten free starch and ground sesame – it may however be seasoned with soy – but often it is on the side for dipping instead, as well as wasabi or ginger
7. salad /side dishes – however if soy, miso or tofu is a huge problem do check – as they feature in some form in many dressings this dish has a sesame dressing but it might be seasoned with a little soy or contain some tofu – as you can see – not much – so only you can decide whether it’s ok for you or not
8. clear soups and some hotpots (nabe) might be ok if no soy, tofu or fu is added to season or bulk out the broth
9. steamed foods – are often quite simply seasoned during cooking – instead a dipping sauce is serve on the side … keep an eye out eg chawan mushi (steamed savoury custard might be worth checking out – hopefully they have not been seasoned with soy)
10. ochazuke – rice with tea or dashi – simple versions may not contain soy
11. omu raisu – omelette wrapped around rice – IF the egg and rice have not been seasoned with soy
12. doria – rice in a gratin dish with various ingredients from prawns to mushrooms – and sometimes a tomato sauce then melty cheese ( although sometimes they feature a white sauce so there will be wheat flour of course – look carefully at restaurant menus with photos and also wax food models in windows)
13. – non Japanese foods…. if you are desperate it’s good to go with something you KNOW you can eat and you can pretty much find any cuisine under the sun in most cities in Japan
Sure there will be other Japanese foods you can eat – but the rest you are on your own with….please remember that all I’m doing is providing a little nudge onto whichever path you find most comfortable for you….. and I’m guessing there are some of you who are willing to take the risk while you are on holidays and suffer the consequences for a short time afterwards. Those of you who have to be more cautious will of course do what they need to for their health.
The extra good news is that the Japanese use many other GF starches in their cookery – for thickening sauces, stews, coating fried foods etc and some noodles are also made from gluten-free starches – sooooo…. it is possible that an item is safe even if it looks like it might have flour… these are the flours to look out for (maybe use them in your cooking at home if you don’t already):
Komeko is rice flour, mochiko is glutinous rice flour
Kuzu – made from the kuzu or kudzu root
Katakuriko – lilybulb or dogtooth violet starch
**note that as both true Kuzu and Katakuriko can be quite expensive it is often replaced with potato starch but that is also gluten-free
The starches from kibi (millet) and warabi (bracken – famously used to make REAL warabi mochi – a traditional sweet of curious texture… but slightly addictive…) are also gluten-free
Almost flavourless , jelly-like Konnyaku made from the starchy Konjac plant – or ‘devils’ tongue root’ – looks like small blocks of granite and turns up in stews and hotpots and sometimes just sliced with a sauce- it’s safe! not a drop of gluten
Nice noodles for you are…
shirataki – basically the noodle version of Konnyaku above
Harusame noodles are made from potato or bean starch and are sometimes used to coat fried foods or in soups etc.
Kuzukiri – noodles made from kuzu starch
Surimi men – fish paste noodles – do check tho if you are worried… however they’re usually made with just fish fillets and a non gluten starch like , kuzu, katakuriko or potato starch – here’s my recipe for them here at SBS FOOD ONLINE if you want to make them at home! Use wheat free tamari or soy in the broth.
Being super safe
If you rent a shorterm apartment or air bnb or an apartment/hotel with kitchenette – you can make your own food so you know what’s in it – and just enjoy Japan for all its other – non food-related wonder!
OH MY GOD! I needed have bothered with all of the above….. Here’s a restaurant guide for GF restaurants in Japan!?!
But that’s probably more useful in city areas…
Hey – if you really can’t find anything to eat in that small village you are visiting – there will always be sake ! Kampai!