Living Gluten & Wheat Free in Japan
Living in Japan with a food allergy feels like an uphill battle. I won’t sugar coat it, it sucks. When I discovered I had a wheat allergy, it felt like death. For my entire life, I practically lived off bread and pasta. These were my favorite foods for as long as I can remember. And no one loved cake more than I did. Not even Marie Antoinette.
In Japan, eating wheat free is a challenge I face daily. A frustrating challenge at that, but I’ve discovered that the best way to deal with this problem is to cook your own food. Unfortunately, when you don’t live here, this can be a problem.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting Japan, because it seriously is my favorite country on Earth. But I won’t pretend to say that traveling here as a Celiac or having a wheat allergy is easy. It’s going to take some serious vigilance and preparation on your part to stay healthy. But it’s doable.
Foods that Secretly Made Me Sick in Japan
Despite being super careful, I’ve gotten seriously ill numerous times traveling this country. I’ll end up eating an innocent-looking piece of mochi or Daifuku and hours later, I’m ill. I’ve eaten soba noodles, thinking buckwheat can’t hurt me, only later to find myself sick as a dog. Evidently, some soba noodles have real wheat mixed inside. I’d find myself ill after a night out eating shabu shabu. As it turns out, gomadare sauce is heavily wheat-based. These are all things I learned as I actually developed a severe allergy to wheat while living in Japan, interestingly.
Japanese Culture Doesn’t Cater Much to Food Allergies
Japan for the most part has not really jumped on the bandwagon of food allergy awareness. People will be more than kind to help assist you (SUPER KIND SERVICE), but restauranteurs and local businesses haven’t exactly catered to gluten-free folks. I’ve encountered a lot of confusion in general just asking about gluten-free food. It’s often met with the translation of a “hmmmm.”
In fact, after living in Japan for 4 years, I can’t really recall any single instance of actually finding a place, or a menu, or a restaurant that actually explicitly advertised “gluten-free” on the menu or pastry. This dietary limitation is just not a part of their culture at this moment. Perhaps the 2020 Olympics will bring about some change, I hope.
And a lot of times, I don’t really trust the wait staff when I ask them if there’s wheat in my meal. Japanese people are often super helpful, but sometimes it’s just not possible to know for sure what’s in your meal.
How to Say Wheat In Japanese
Komugiko 小麦 is wheat flour, and mugi means wheat. This is the most universal symbol you need to know while in Japan and it’s relatively easy to spot. Most stores and food stalls have soy, dairy, and wheat allergies Kanji printed below their products.
Here are some other types of wheat you should know.
mugi (麦): barley
tsubu (粒): whole wheat/barley
hadakamugi (裸麦): rye
nari (蘇鉄): made from cycad pulp, Buddhist temple diet
gokoku (五穀): “5 grain”: soy, wheat, barley, proso millet, and foxtail millet
How to Ask “Is there Wheat in My Food?”
The one phrase I swear I used more in Japan than perhaps Arigatou Gozaimasu or Summimasen was
小麦は、この中にあります – IN romaji this is written: komugiwa kono naka ni arimasu
A BREAKDOWN OF THE SENTENCE
Komugi – means wheat; kono – indicates this; naka ni – indicates inside; arimasu – indicates a state of being for an object.
Phonetically, this sounds like this: ko-moo-gee wa, kono naka nee a-ree-ma-sue
Hidden Foods Containing Gluten in Japan
As you can see, almost everything in Japan has wheat flour added to it. Literally, almost everything. But with some extra vigilance, you can stay away from it.
- Japanese curry. This stuff is loaded with wheat flour. It’s super dark brown.
- Miso soup, most versions of it.
- Breads. There are a billion bakeries in Tokyo but I’ve yet to find any that have a wheat free alternative or don’t include the dreaded komugi.
- Pastries. I’ve wandered around countless food courts and have yet to find any pastries that offer a wheat free alternative. Maybe one day I’ll get lucky.
- Soy Sauce – Chinese style. Thai-style soy sauce is supposed to be ok. Try bringing Tomari.
- Ponzu Sauce
- Gomadare sauce. God, this was hardest for me to give up. It’s the sesame sauce you eat with shabu shabu.
- Sushi. Most sushi still has grain based vinegar but you can request plain rice assuming nothing was put on the sushi.
- Sesame salad dressings
- Pretty much all salad dressings at the store and in restaurants.
- Breaded Tempura and Katsu, Tonkatsu. This all has panko bread crumbs.
- Chicken Kareage (nuggets)
- Chahan – fried rice, this usually has soy sauce.
- Mugi tea. Be careful with this because it’s super common and people often just serve it to you while waiting, etc. It’s also served around temples. It’s a darker tea. Anytime someone brings you tea, ask “小麦は、この中にあります” or ko-moo-gee wa, kono naka nee a-ree-ma-sue phonetically.
- Shabu Shabu – make sure the hot pot isn’t made of soy sauce or wheat. Plus, the gomadare sauce has wheat in it. Be sure to ask for water broth.
- Rice crackers and nori crackers all have mugi.
- Saffon cake.
- Ramen may have wheat, especially if it’s miso based.
- All sauces, as a general rule.
- Daifuku – Unfortunately this innocent little mochi pastry is often filled with dreaded mugi. I’ve gotten sick several times assuming that Daifuku is totally ok to eat. Nope, it’s not.
- Taiyaki fish
- Gyoza – definitely off limits
- Xiao Long Bao
Helpful Websites I’ve Found:
Gluten-Free Sweets in Japan
Pierre Herme – these are the best macarons in the world, from Paris. And they’re mostly all gluten-free. You can find Pierre Herme around Tokyo in food basements and in Shibuya
Mochi – unlike daifuku, most mochi is simply rice-based, but be sure to confirm
Chocolate Drinks – one awesome thing about Japan is the fact that you can find the best hot chocolate and cold chocolate. And best of all, it’s usually all gluten-free.
Japan doesn’t offer a lot of options but it’s still possible. As I learn more, I’ll continue to update my findings throughout the year.
Doesn’t all ramen have wheat because of the noodles?
I think most all ramen is wheat-based.
In Tokyo you have Littlebird Glutenfree Cafe – totally safe for a celiac – everything is gluten free, and delicious!
Dear, Thai-style soy sauce, and most kinds of sauce are actually not OK except the Mega Chef brand that has gluten-free soy sauce, oyster sauce, and fish sauce. But Thai fish sauce in general is OK ne – a celiac from BKK 🙂
Thanks for your tip!
This is such a great website! Helped me no end before I headed off to Tokyo ? & So jealous of you living there!
I have written my own guide to going gluten-free in Japan – check it out on my website! I hope it helps someone.
Thanks Nicola! I’m glad you found it useful!! I will check yours out 🙂