BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – I love 和食 (washoku, Japanese food). I love the tastes, textures and the sheer number of fresh ingredients I don’t get at home, the mindfulness in food production and preparation, and the nose-to-tail eating style that saves on food waste.
Needless to say, I was devastated to find that I feel and function so much better when eating gluten-free: グルテンが入っているものは食べられません。 (Guruten ga haitte-iru mono wa taberaremasen, I can’t eat things that contain gluten.) However, it’s even harder to enjoy 和食 if you’re セリアック病 (seriakku-byō, celiac) and therefore may end up incredibly sick by unwittingly eating some hidden gluten.
It’s not impossible to enjoy Japanese food on a gluten-free diet, you just need to avoid foods that contain ingredients such as 小麦 (komugi, wheat), 大麦 (ōmugi, barley). ライ麦 (raimugi, rye) or 麩 (fu, wheat gluten/bran). In short, watch out for the kanji 麦.or 麩.
Due to the way meals are prepared in Japan, restaurants and accommodations that provide meals may not be able to change the way things are made, but you can always ask if there are suitable options: すみません、麦類は食べられません。小麦や大麦が入っていますか？ (Sumimasen, mugi-rui wa taberaremasen. Komugi ya ōmugi ga haitte-imasu ka? Excuse me, I can’t eat wheat. Is there wheat or barley in this?) 麦アレルギーなんですけど、小麦とか大麦とかが入っていない食べ物はありますか？ (Mugi arerugī nan desu kedo, komugi toka ōmugi toka ga haitte-inai tabemono wa arimasu ka? I have a wheat allergy, do you have any food without wheat or barley in it?)
When shopping, it’s important to be able to read the 原材料名表示 (genzairyō-mei hyōji, list of ingredients) and ask questions around the topic, as there is not much information about グルテン in Japan. It is more common for Japanese people to have a そばアレルギー (soba arerugī, soba allergy) or 卵アレルギー (tamago arerugī, egg allergy).
The good news is that the 原材料名表示 is fairly detailed. At the end of the list, often in parentheses, there should be a mention of possible allergens that are included in the product. If it says 小麦を含む (komugi o fukumu, wheat included) you’ll know to avoid it: (一部に小麦・乳成分・大豆を含む) (Ichibu ni komugi, nyūseibun, daizu o fukumu, Some ingredients contain wheat, dairy and soybeans.)
Rice, of course, is gluten free, but depending on side dishes and toppings served with it, you may end up with several varieties of gluten-containing foods in front of you during a traditional meal.
So what else can you do?
I suggest bringing your own グルテンフリー醤油 (guruten-furī shōyu, gluten-free soy sauce) so you can easily go out for sushi or sashimi. Just be sure to order unmarinated options. 焼き鳥 (yakitori, skewered chicken) is also an option if you order it 塩で (shio de, with salt) and avoid たれ (tare, sauce) as it will contain soy sauce.
If you’re after noodles, keep an eye out for 十割蕎麦／十割そば (jūwari soba, 100 percent soba) on labels. This means they are made with pure soba flour. Other soba noodles might contain 小麦粉 (komugiko, wheat flour). Remember that at restaurants the soup and dipping sauce being used will be soy sauce-based even if it’s 十割そば.
On the dessert front, 餅 (mochi, rice cake)-based sweets such as 大福 (daifuku, soft rice cake filled with red bean or other sweetened pastes) and 団子 (dango, rice cake balls made with rice flour) are generally fine. Just be aware of things like みたらし団子 (mitarashi dango) and 磯辺焼き (isobeyaki) as these have wheat-based sauces. My favorites are 塩豆大福 (shio mame daifuku, salted beans in mochi) wrapped around 餡子 (anko, red bean paste), and わらび餅 (warabi mochi, braken jelly) coated in きな粉 (kinako, roasted soy bean powder).
So, until you find your local グルテンフリー eatery, you can keep yourself well-nourished by paying attention to the 原材料名表示 on any packaged ingredients at the supermarket.
Vocabulary that’s good for your diet
As with gluten-free shopping in other countries, you’re always safer cooking with real food. So get acquainted with the vegetables, seafood, tofu and meat available in Japan.
When it comes to packaged food, some condiments that are good to have on hand include グルテンフリー醬油 (guruten-furī shōyu, gluten-free soy sauce), みりん (mirin, a type of rice wine), 料理酒 (ryōrishu, cooking sake)
米酢 (komezu, rice vinegar) and 天然だし (tennen dashi, natural stock that is made with fish and kelp).
If you’re making miso soup, grab some 白味噌 (shiromiso, white miso paste) or 赤味噌 (akamiso, red miso paste), as 合わせ味噌 (awase-miso, miso blend) contains 大麦 (ōmugi, barley). I also recommend adding dried わかめ (wakame, seaweed).
For 鍋 (nabe, hot pot) you will need your condiments and, depending on which flavor you’re making, some 味噌 (miso), 豆乳 (tōnyū, soy milk) or キムチ (kimuchi, kimchi). Or go with a clear broth and use some スダチ (sudachi, lime) and グルテンフリー醬油 as your dipping sauce.
When heading to an 居酒屋 (izakaya, Japanese-style bar), I usually grab some 枝豆 (edamame, soy beans) and 冷奴 (hiyayakko, chilled tofu). A useful question to remember is “ソースをかけないで、別に貰っていい？” (“Sōsu o kakenaide, betsu ni moratte ii?” “Is it possible to get the sauce on the side?”) If the izakaya can do this, you may have more options.