5 Tips for Eating Gluten-Free in Japan
When I first came to Japan ten years ago, I didn’t think I had to worry about eating gluten-free. I enjoyed many wheat-based delights, such as the joys of Japanese bakeries full of sweet and savory confections, slurping down glutinous udon and ramen noodles, and ordering spaghetti and cake at every café I stopped at near mealtime. As I slowly realized that my body was not as good friends with gluten as my tastebuds, I panicked thinking about all of the kaedama (extra serving of ramen noodles in Fukuoka) that I would be missing out on. Luckily, however, Japan is a great place to be if you eat gluten-free, either by necessity or choice. Here are a few tips that I have learned along the way to maximize your culinary experiences in Japan while not breaking your diet.
1. Savour Your Rice
The easiest way to avoid most gluten in Japan is to stick with the country’s beloved carbohydrate staple: rice. Many (most?) washoku (Japanese cuisine) meals have rice on the side as the standard so you don’t have to ask for no bread or pasta with your lunch. A good go-to option is a teishoku, or set meal, with some kind of protein, small soup, pickled vegetable, and rice. But, as I mention in more detail below, watch out for fried mains and shoyu (soy sauce) if you are especially sensitive to gluten. Some other meals to orient yourself towards are the grilled meats, yakitori (fire-grilled chicken) and yakiniku (fire-grilled beef), as well as, sushi of course. And, if you want a quick yet hearty snack, you can’t go wrong with onigiri from the nearest convenience store!
2. Acquaint Yourself with Japanese Noodles
If you are feeling like noodles, but want to avoid gluten, it’s time to explore other options available in Japanese grocery stores and restaurants. Perhaps the most ubiquitous to Japan is soba–buckwheat noodles–although they are often served with a dipping sauce or soup with a soy sauce base. If you buy them yourself, however, in a convenience store or grocery store, you can choose to flavor them as you please. Be careful when reading the labels as well–always look for 100% 蕎麦粉 (そばこ buckwheat). Another great yet less known option is harusame, noodles made from potato, sweet potato, or mung bean starch. These are wonderful in a salad and as a side to a stir-fry. In terms of rice noodles, bifun, or vermicelli, is another gluten-free noodle substitute.
3. Go Pasta Shopping Online or in Import Stores
While soba, harusame, and bifun are likely available at most local grocery stores, with convenience stores stocking pre-cooked soba as well, eating gluten-less pasta at home in Japan is comparatively less convenient. The most reliable in-person places to buy gluten-free pasta in my experience are the import stores, such as the chains Kaldi Coffee Farm and Jupiter Coffee and Import Foods. These shops have both imported gluten-free pasta, often from Italy, and Japanese gluten-free pasta. The imported options range from pasta made entirely from lentils and beans to the most common which are a combination of rice and corn. The Japanese pastas are usually 100% rice flour, but their consistency is far better than any I have sampled in North America; in fact, they are often almost indistinguishable from wheat pasta. If you cannot get to an import store, Amazon Japan also has some affordable and tasty Japanese rice pastas that they will deliver to your door and even a rice-based udon that I am planning on sampling soon!
4. Watch Out for "Rice Bread", Fried Foods, and Soy Sauce
When gluten-free eating in Japan, while there are some great savory options as I have outlined above, there are also some things to look out for. The first is soy sauce, the quintessential Japanese sauce which overtook miso in the 1950s to become the dominant flavoring agent of washoku (and even some youshoku-Japanese Western-style dishes). If you have celiac disease or must abide by a strict gluten-free diet, then soy sauce, which often contains gluten, is off the table. Another food category to look out for are fried foods, such as delicious karaage (fried chicken) and fried fish. This is because a lot of Japanese fried foods are coated in panko–which translated literally is bread flour or breadcrumbs–or with wheat flour and potato starch. Also, while breads labelled 米 (rice) in bakeries and supermarkets may look appealing, in my experience, nine out of ten times they are predominantly wheat flour with some rice flour added–hardly a gluten-free treat.
5. Embrace Wagashi
The above tips mostly discuss savory options, but Japan also has a great alternative to wheat cakes, cookies, and desserts: wagashi or traditional Japanese sweets! Most Japanese sweets, such as varying types of daifuku, mochi, dango, are gluten-free, with rice flour as the primary ingredient. Why not explore the different ways to enjoy these sweet treats, like the tri-colored hanami dango in the spring, warabi mochi dusted with kinako in the summer, satsuma imo (sweet potato) ice cream in the fall, and oshiruko–an azuki bean and mochi soup–in the winter, and discover Japan’s deep appreciation for the changing seasons at the same time? One word of caution–two traditional desserts, taiyaki and dorayaki, are wheat flour-based, so it would be best to avoid them. Although rice-flour based sweets are especially delicious in speciality cafes and temples with a cup of green tea in hand, you can also grab the “to-go” version of most at your local convenience and grocery stores!