How I Deal With Being a Gluten-Free (Mostly) Vegetarian in Japan

Food is the number one way I am reminded that I am in a foreign country and it's my job to make things work for me, not the other way around.
Publish date:
November 18, 2014
food, travel, gluten-free, diet, japan

This scenario is probably vaguely familiar to most people with any kind of eating restrictions.

You sit down in a restaurant with a new group of people. Someone mentions how good the "spaghetti and meatballs" or "strawberry pancakes" or "takoyaki" is. Everyone nods approvingly, mouths watering. Maybe someone suggests eating "family style" and just ordering a bunch of all the recommended dishes to share.

There is a chorus of agreement and one or two people take it upon themselves to suggest and order delicious dishes for the group. If you haven't already spoken up about your eating restrictions, it's now or go hungry. And I HATE going hungry.

It's usually at this point when folks are rattling off, "OK, who likes pork? Everyone? Good." or "Oh-muh-gah, the crepes are AMAZING, everybody down with that?" that I know I'm going to have to single myself out, at least a little bit.

"Hey y'all (you can take the Asian woman out of Texas, but...), I'm going to go ahead and order the veggie dish with soy sauce on the side. Anybody can share, with me, but I generally don't eat meat. And, uh, I'm also going to get the rice noodles too, which everyone is welcome to, but I don't think I can eat the tempura, and dumplings, and breaded shrimp things. Why? Because I have Celiac and I can't eat gluten."

Then come the questions. "Can you eat this? Can you eat that? Really? Are you going to be okay? YOU LIVE IN JAPAN AND YOU DON'T EAT MEAT? Why not? Why not just cheat when you're here?" And so on.

I usually don't mind genuinely curious questions. A lot of people I've met are sincere and want to know more. Or they just don't care, and that's fine with me. Sometimes I even prefer it. It's the occasional food bully that really fries my tofu (in gluten-free coconut flour of course).

On my very first eating night out with my husband's Japan scholar peers, I encountered such a bully. After I'd ordered my food, and nobody really seemed to care why I ordered extra stuff outside of the group fare, this guy laid into me.

"Japanese food is so good, don't you want to experience all of it while you're here?"

Of course, but that doesn't mean I'm going to make myself sick or compromise my beliefs. That would make for a pretty crappy experience for me.

"But why don't you eat meat? I can understand the gluten-whatever thing, I guess, but you could set aside your beliefs just for a little while. Nobody cares! Do you think it's bad that I am eating cute little cows and chickens?" he said with a smirk.

But I don't want to set aside my beliefs. I care. I have my reasons and honestly, I don't think it's necessarily dinner table conversation. I don't see why YOU care what I eat. And you eat whatever you want, no judgment from me.

"But you think eating 'land animals' [I'd mentioned that I do eat some fish] is bad, so do you think I'm bad?"

I don't think you're "bad" for eating anything. I do think you kind of suck right now for trying to get me to eat what I don't want to eat. Why do you give a damn?

And blah blah blah. We danced around the subject for a few more minutes before he corrected my grammar and I WAS DONE WITH HIM.

Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy to have a conversation with anybody as to the reasons why I eat the way I eat, and vice versa. I LOVE talking about the differences in people's food choices as long as it's a mutually respectful conversation.

And I may hate it, but I can handle the occasional food bully. That's not unique to Japan.

Really, it's more that I hate the added attention. It might just be my own deep-seated shyness, but as the wife of a Japan scholar who doesn't study with most of the people I meet, who isn't a Japan scholar to begin with, and who also speaks Japanese on the level of a baby parakeet, I already stand out enough. Add in the food stuff and I feel like a giant quinoa arrow is pointing at me.

But this is part of my life in Japan. Not only navigating being different for a myriad of reasons, but also facing eating challenges. Food is the number one way I am reminded that I am in a foreign country and it's my job to make things work for ME, not the other way around.

I'm not going to lie, eating is difficult here. It's far from impossible, but infinitely more complicated than eating in the US. There have definitely been times I've eaten something I wish I hadn't (secret beef, hidden chicken AKA the title of my children's action-fairytale novel), but I try not to let it bother me too much. Like everything else here, there are going to missteps.

So here are the most useful things I've figured out so far. While some of this is specific to Japan, I do think learning what you can and cannot eat in any culture other than your own is a valuable lesson.

Learn to Read

One of the first things I made it my business to learn were the Japanese characters for "wheat," "flour," "soy sauce," and "consomme," among others.

"Consomme" (you'll know it as soup base) is a really popular flavoring over here. It's in everything from chips to rice or pasta dishes to good ol' fashioned soup. It typically contains various processed meats and wheat flour.

I've also learned what dishes or products, despite not listing every ingredient, are just "understood" to contain wheat.

As a non meat eater, learning the most common characters for the words "beef," "chicken," and "pork," as well as understanding that certain food styles or cuisines are built on MEAT, has proved helpful as well.

Keep it Simple in Restaurants

I could write a book, or maybe a slim pamphlet, about the ins and outs of gluten-free or vegetarian/pescetarian eating in Japan. Eating in restaurants is tricky.

Very generally speaking, if the food is heavily seasoned, processed, or drowned in sauce, I stay away from it (kind of like in the US). You never know what mysteries lie in the "special sauce."

Thank the Great Kitten in the Sky that grilling at one's table is so popular here. That way whether I get veggies or fish, I know exactly what I'M cooking for me. I also carry a little bottle of my own gluten free soy sauce where ever I go. Asking for something plain or unseasoned is so much easier than asking what's in the sauce. And frankly, even if they could tell me, I probably wouldn't understand all of it.

The simpler something is the safer it is. Steamed, raw, boiled, or (simply) grilled, are what I look for. The more complicated a dish is, the more likely it will have something I don't want in it. I am VERY lucky that Japan is a culture that values quality and simplicity in their cuisine.

(Carefully) Try New Things

If I only ate things that are familiar to me, I'd eat five things and be SO BORED. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes people make when living and eating in Japan is trying to make it like your home country.

SURPRISE! Japan is not like America or Canada or Germany. There's nothing wrong with missing some comforts from home (French's Yellow Mustard you sweet beautiful thing, you), but wallowing in what you don't have is the number one way to get food frustrated (food-strated?).

I can't tell you how many times I've come back from the grocery store not knowing what four out of five of the vegetables I bought are. But I know veggies are safe, and maybe I'll find one more thing I can look for in a restaurant.

As many of you may guess, there's some seemingly "weird" stuff in a Japanese market. I'm trying to taste as much of it as I can. So far expanding my palate by trying things like the little plums with the neon green insides, or ALL the pickled veggies AND FISH in the pickled food section of my grocery store, has been the best way of not feeling "deprived" while living here.

Specialty Items Can Be Found, I Just Try Not to Lean on Them

There's a "natural foods" market in Yokohama station that has gluten-free bread delivered on Mondays. The organic section of the import market carries gluten-free pasta and meat substitutes. Costco, and various online stores sell comforts from home when I REALLY need them.

I'll admit, it's nice to have some of these things occasionally. But I've discovered that by leaning on these "easy answers" for all my dietary needs, I'm not really solving my problem. I live in JAPAN, I want to figure out how to eat within what the culture offers. It IS possible.

Not to mention, a lot of the above-mentioned products are EXPENSIVE (either in flat cost or because of shipping).

So that's a peek into how I do it. And while I admit I spend more energy worrying about food than many people spend scrutinizing the Nikkei, it has become a major part of my adventure here.

Despite what my pal assumed at that first meal, I actually think I'm getting a pretty solid experience of the food culture here. In having to consider every bite I take, I'm that much more excited and appreciative when I do actually find something that I can eat.