Is It Possible To Eat Gluten-Free In Japan?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've celiac disease so I live on a gluten free diet and have for basically my entire life. I've always wondered how celiacs or other people who live on a gluten free diet are taken into account in Japan. There are a lot of food I see in anime that a celiac wouldn't able to eat the various noodle dishes, breaded stuff etc.
Japan is not a great place for people with dietary restrictions. Adjusting recipes to customer requests is simply not done, and most restaurants won't be able to make changes. The artisan culture ("shokunin") of Japanese cooking makes it so that substitutions are like asking an artist not to use a specific kind of paint. If the artist/chef chose not to use such ingredients that would be fine, but if they rely on those tools, they won't be able to stand behind the end result, and would prefer not to serve the dish at all.
The good news is that rice, still the carbohydrate staple of Japanese cooking, is gluten free. Onigiri, mochi, sushi and sashimi, tofu, sweet potatoes, certain kinds of noodles that are made with rice or sweet potatoes, yakitori and yakiniku SHOULD all be mostly okay. I say "mostly" because Japanese cooking has one GIGANTIC caveat when it comes to gluten sensitivity:
The problem is that Japanese soy sauce, bizarrely, has wheat in it, and therefore should probably be avoided if you're gluten intolerant. Soy sauce is in a lot of different kinds of Japanese cooking, and many foods are impossible to make without it. It shows up in everything, from the fillings in some kinds of onigiri, to the marinade in yakiniku, to the sauce in simmered dishes like kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) or simmered pork. It is EVERYWHERE.
If you're using it as a condiment, a type of naturally-brewed soy sauce called "Tamari" is available that contains no wheat and no gluten, and that opens up the possibility of eating sushi and other things with soy sauce. You can buy it at most Japanese grocery stores, and some restaurants may have it upon request. But in most cases, if trace amounts of gluten are enough to make you sick, you're going to have to be very, very careful.
That said, plenty of gluten-sensitive people have travelled to Japan and had a good time. Some Celiac sufferers keep a pre-translated card with them, explaining in Japanese that you have a medical issue, and what foods must be avoided. This card can be given to your waiter, who can then suggest foods on the menu that might be okay. However, you must expect that certain restaurants will politely explain that they won't be able to accommodate you. And nobody is going to keep a completely gluten-free kitchen, so if you are so gluten intolerant that kitchen cross-contamination is a concern, Japan might not be a good place for you.
If you are one of the many people that does NOT have Celiac Disease, and simply one of the many with an unexplained gluten intolerance, you may wish to test yourself on certain foods if your reactions are bearable. Many people with such intolerances report that they don't experience nearly as many problems outside of North America. There is not much good science in this field, as reports of gluten issues are a pretty recent phenomenon, so we don't know for sure why that is and what we're doing differently than other countries. However, agricultural practices in different countries do vary.
Please note that I am not a doctor, and the above should not replace the advice of a qualified medical professional.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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