Dietary Restrictions in Japan
Advice for the tummy-troubled traveler
In some countries it is immediately apparent on menus or in shops which foods are gluten free, lactose free, vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, or otherwise suited to a restricted diet. Japan is not such a place, neither in English nor in Japanese, and I recently spoke with three visitors who each approached this challenge differently.
The first person was a tourist who felt unfairly treated. The night before, he had visited a restaurant that served suitable rice dishes, but it was a noodle dish that looked most appealing. The noodles on offer, however, contained gluten, so eating them would have upset his stomach.
Upon asking his waiter for the rice from one dish and the sauce from another, he was politely asked to select from the menu. He tried more emphatically to explain that he wanted a customised meal, but still his request was declined.
I assured him this was nothing personal or unusual, and that it was customary in Japan to order only from the menu. I explained that the mix-and-match dining style we take for granted in the west was not culturally appropriate here. Furthermore, I explained that in Japan the act of saying ‘no’ is unpleasant and to be avoided at all costs. I wanted him to understand that his waiter would not have declined his request lightly.
A bit of communication can help though, and if you adhere to a restricted diet, there are useful phrases to know. These include komugi, shōyu arerugī (wheat and soy sauce allergy), anafirakishī no (anaphylactic), and niku o tabemasen (meat not eaten). These words may help you to shop or to rule out dishes on a menu, but do not rely solely on them if the consequences could be severe.
In my second example, a diabetic friend who was coming to Japan asked me for some advice. He told me he did not eat meat, did not like fish, and never ate any type of rice. I recommended he visit another country, but his trip was booked and he was looking forward to exploring rural Japan.
Japanese cuisine is a cornerstone pleasure for most visitors so you would think my friend would have been hungry and disappointed during his visit. But because he came mentally prepared for his challenges, and carried suitable food substitutes at all times, he actually fared very well.
My friend successfully avoided eating meat or fish, but he did accept that these would flavour the stock used in most soups and sauces. He seldom had to reach in his pocket for his back-up instant mashed potatoes, muesli bars and other fortifying options brought from home. Even if it was just the palate cleansing pickles, he found something to enjoy at all meals and he left satisfied and with a great record of blood glucose readings.
In my third and final example, the flexibility of an older friend whose diet had been strictly limited for some 50 years surprised me. Given the mysterious smoothies I had only ever eaten at her house, most made from plants grown in her own garden, I expected her to starve in Japan. I knew her to be a fish-eating vegetarian who never ate gluten or dairy. When she arrived at my house, I pressed her about gluten because it is debilitating for celiac disease sufferers. My friend was blasé as she explained that it wasn’t such a worry and gluten merely sent her to sleep.
I took her to lunch and after studying the menu and the food models outside a restaurant, we entered and ordered a ‘safe’ seafood soup. Unfortunately, what I thought were vegetables were actually tender strips of pork. And lurking beneath the cloudy broth were freshly made (and very glutinous) udon noodles. I braced for a culinary catastrophe but my friend daintily picked out the pork, deposited it in my bowl, and set about eating the soup. She even slurped a few noodles.
‘This is delicious,’ my friend said. ‘But I think I will have a nap on the way home.’
Dietary flexibility like hers is commendable but not an option for those with a serious medical condition or inviolable beliefs about foods. In these cases I recommend visitors to Japan buy whole and simple items and eat them raw or find a way to cook privately. I appreciate that doesn’t sound like a holiday but Japanese supermarkets are treasure troves of vegetables, fruits, fish, and other single-ingredient delights.
I admit if I were on a restricted diet and visited Japan, I would dine out and suffer the consequences. If you share my appetite for new foods but have health or other reasons not to gobble fearlessly, I hope you will the links below useful. And when you find a Japanese dish that works for you, like sushi, sashimi, or salted chicken yakatori, embrace it, enjoy it, and try not to be tempted by more adventurous options.
Never forget that a bowl of steaming, fresh, pure rice has honourary status in Japan. It’s often eaten plain at the end of a meal as a special dish to savour. So if, on your visit, you are faced with bowl of plain rice for breakfast, lunch or dinner (or all three on some days) I hope you will find comfort in its exalted status.