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travel + culture

on the road and what's out there.


eating 小麦粉 (wheat)-free in Japan

Caitlin Surakitbanharn

one thing that really bugs me is when i google "gluten free japan" there are a ton of blog posts out there about how it is almost impossible to eat wheat-free in the Land of the Rising Sun.  and maybe it's not even that these blog posts's the tone that they're written in.  they're all DARE these crazy Japanese people not have gluten-free options on the menu?!  and how DARE these lunatics not know what gluten is?!  it's always the some upper-middle-class middle-aged woman is used to shopping at Whole Foods and eating at vegan/gluten free restaurants and has time to sit there and bake like 18 batches of gluten free cookies everyday.  i know i'm stereotyping here but no really - google it and then look at the authors of the really is this woman, every time.

so what actually irks me about this is how WRONG they really are.  first of all - Japanese cuisine is gloriously gluten free in MANY ways.  let me count the ways? i cannot - for they are AMAZINGLY ENDLESS.  secondly, if you take the time to do research, these foods are very simple and easy to find., Japanese people do not know what gluten is, nor do they know what "gluten free" is.  the level of English here is pretty low, so saying "gluten free" is meaningless, and somewhat ignorant of anyone to come here and expect people to know what the hell "gluten free" means.  it'd be like a Japanese person coming to America and asking you to make them something very specific, in Japanese, and then them being angry with you for not understanding Japanese.....

however, if you take a few hours to learn how to say "i have a wheat and barley allergy" or "i cannot eat wheat flour or barley".....they 100% understand you and will then go OUT OF THEIR WAY to find something in the kitchen to feed you.  and i promise you, whatever they feed you will be fucking amazing.

so let me tell you a few options you have, as someone who lives in Japan or someone who is visiting....

1. karaage 唐揚げ (fried chicken)
i know - you're thinking...excuse me..fried chicken is NOT gluten free.  but you, my friends, have never eaten traditional fried chicken in Japan.  here in my fine country, they fry that shit with POTATO STARCH...not bread crumbs, panko, or wheat flour.  so yeah - gluten free.  not all karaage shops use potato starch..some use a mixture of wheat flour and potato starch so it's crucial to know how to ask...but about 50% of the places we go's me + karaage all day long.  i mean, look how happy my sister and i are up there...!

2. soba そば (buckwheat noodles)
please don't even worry about my post-gym look i have going on here (sweaty, frizzy hair..old soul cycle sweatshirt, no make-up...ravishing i'm sure).  what's important are those dark noodles hanging off my chopsticks.  soba, or buckwheat noodles, are god's gift to gluten-sensitive people.  now, it is important to find a place that has 100% buckwheat noodles (and don't cut them with wheat flour), but if you find a place that does it the right way....your life will change.  a local ramen shop here in our town has these beautiful inky black buckwheat noodles that they serve in a hot pork bone broth with bamboo, an onsen engg, a piece of chicken, a piece of duck, spring onions, and seaweed...and it's literally my heaven.  not only is buckwheat gluten free, but it's super healthy and is super low on the glycemic index and you'll be happy and satisfied for the rest of your day.  also, my nails look good there.  but that is besides the point.

3. traditional Japanese fare

Jao and i went to this incredible onsen/ryokan up in the mountains for my amazing 27th birthday, and this was the bomb dinner that was served to me (and it was allll wheat free).  shabu-shabu, sashimi, salad, fermented veggies, grilled eggplant, rice, grilled fish, miso...i mean get out, this whole table (plus a little side table full of food) was all wheat free, and all safe for me to eat.  again, please disregard my look, as i was post-onsen and not worried about anything except the awesome meal in front of me.  OH and that sake (japanese rice wine) is also gluten free and AMAZING.  highly recommend some sake action.  

4. yakitori ( やきとりor 焼き鳥)

yakitori is like the AMAZING Japanese version of...popsicles? corn dogs? no...fair food.  it's the amazing Japanese version of like..going to the fair and getting one of those gross-ass elephant ears.  so it literally means "grilled chicken" but yakitori can come in many many forms and all those forms are GLUTEN FREE bitches.  it's basically grilled meat on a stick for your eating enjoyment.  sometimes it's grilled meat and veggies, sometimes just veggies, sometimes it's grilled quail eggs (which are awesome).  and this fare isn't just relegated to matsuri and festivals.. there are a bajillion yakitori restaurants in Tokyo, all equally awesome in their own ways.  some of the  varieties of awesome you can find.... chicken heart, chicken skin, chicken butt, dark meat with spring onions, chicken meatballs, beef tongue, beef and green peppers, mentai (cod roe), green peppers stuffed with cheese, quail eggs, and many many more (asians use the whole chicken/whole fish.... so even the tongues, intestines, eggs, roe come out and end up on your plate! and they're all delicious).  just ask for the shio (salt) flavoring if you're trying to avoid soy sauce.

quick disclaimer : soy sauce. soy sauce is definitely made with wheat, no way around that.  i mean gluten free soy sauce i guess.  however, we read an article about a year ago that a LARGE portion of the gluten is actually burned off in the fermentation process of soy sauce.  so much in face that you can eat soy sauce and not have big problems.  all right...well i don't know if i'd go so far as to can just eat a ton of soy sauce if you're gluten-sensitive.  generally when meals are cooked with soy sauce it's no problem for me... it's used frequently in cooking here but i'm pretty positive that when used in a high heat cooking situation, it all burns off.  i cannot, however, handle sushi soy sauce more than a drop.  i can gently dab one corner of my negiri into a bit of soy sauce and be ok, but anything more than that and i get some stomach pains.  so what i'm saying have to figure out what works for you.  and if you don't have time to play around with it (aka you're just visiting), then if you stick to the traditional foods listed above (including sushi!) and just skip soy'll be fine.  promise.

also fyi: glutinous rice doesn't contain gluten, neither does any kind of mochi, and miso is generally safe safe safe.  if your miso soup looks a little more on the red side, maybe ask if it's miso-shiro (white miso) but truthfully, it is rare to be served red miso (barely miso).  the only other big thing to watch out for is barley tea (麦茶)or "mugi-cha" as it is sometimes served in restaurants...but if you just ask "kono mugi-cha wa nan des ka?"  simple :-)

and i mean...of course if you really are stressed out about it...just go to Thailand.  almost everything is wheat-free there (as long as you can handle some serious chili/heat!).