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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

Japanese Food – Gluten Free

Gluten intolerance is no longer considered to be a fringe medical concept. Researchers around the world are fully aware that methods of modern wheat cultivation pose a serious health problem to humans, other animals and the environment. (Batalion, 2013) Rates of gluten sensitivity, including gluten allergy and celiac disease, are on the rise around the world. And more people are becoming aware of the adverse, inflammatory and addictive effects of consuming modern wheat and wheat products so are eliminating gluten from their diets to protect their health. The global market for gluten free foods is expected to reach $4.3 billion USD by 2015. (Brown, 2012)

Knowing how much wheat is part of the modern Japanese diet, I took a lot of care to stay healthy and avoid gluten while in Japan recently. It wasn’t easy and I got ‘glutened’ a few times in spite of my best efforts. My gluten allergy symptoms include: A body temperature spike about 20 minutes after consuming even a tiny amount of gluten, followed by the feeling of having been hit over the head with a shovel that renders me feeling exhausted and dumb for an hour or more – in addition to the longer term inflammation gluten produces in my body. Gluten affects the whole body, including the brain, skin, endocrine system, stomach, liver, blood vessels, smooth muscles and cell nuclei. These effects are serious and have long term adverse health consequences. (Kresser, 2014) Many of you probably are also reacting adversely to gluten and are being treated by your doctors to suppress the various symptom it causes instead of addressing its underlying inflammatory response that’s responsible for your skin conditions, allergies, autoimmune diseases, etc. ORDER GLUTEN FREE MEALS FOR YOUR FLIGHTS I was flying on United and was able to request gluten free meals for all four of my long flights. While the meals I received were indeed GF, they were also completely tasteless. While people around me were eating things that looked somewhat interesting, I got plates of dried up chicken with no seasoning or sauce of any kind and unseasoned steamed veggies. Apparently the United chefs equate GF with boring or nearly inedible. I had almonds and dried fruits with me on the long San Francisco-Osaka flight and also some GF mochi cakes and Japanese chocolates on the return flight but there’s a limit to how much of these a person can consume during a trans-Pacific flight and snacks aren’t entirely nutritious. ALLERGY FOOD CARDS Part of my preparation for this trip was to order some food allergy cards in kanji and English from Select Wisely, a website offering translation cards for a wide variety of food and drug allergies, special diets and medical needs. On one side, my cards say in English and Japanese kanji characters: I am allergic to wheat, rye, barley, oats, soy sauce, malt, flour and gluten including sauces, gravies, breads, cereals and foods made with these ingredients. On the reverse side, they say in both languages: Please prepare a meal for me that does not contain these foods. Thank you. I had the cards laminated in plastic at a local copy center so they would look official and also increase the chances of their being returned to me. What happened the few times I was ordering a meal somewhere I couldn’t make myself understood in English was that the chefs themselves came out of the kitchen to speak with me. The waitress and chef examined the card and conferred between themselves in Japanese, I spoke English to them since my Japanese is limited to simple words like arigato, a delicious meal arrived with something else substituted for the miso soup  or other gluten-containing dish and it all turned out quite well. You can order cards for yourself at Another useful site for allergic travelers is Gluten Free Passport. They offer resources for communicating your gluten free and other allergy free needs with restaurants around the world. See GLUTEN FREE ORGANIC TAMARI

I also took along many packets of gluten free organic tamari to use in lieu of soy sauce (soy sauce is traditionally brewed with wheat) for sushi and sashimi. Amazon sells it – 12 boxes of 20 individual packets each for around $40. Those 240 packets will last you a good long time. That the tamari contains no GMO anything in addition to being GF is a big plus. See KANJI FOR GLUTEN-CONTAINING INGREDIENTS AND FOODS It may also be helpful for you to be able to recognize the kanji characters for things you can’t eat if you’re avoiding gluten – translations thanks to an online English-to-Japanese translating site:

  • Wheat:  小麦

  • Wheat Flour:  麦粉

  • Soy Sauce 醤油 , 正油 , むらさ

  • Rye: 黒麦

  • Barley:   大麦

  • Malt: 麦芽

  • Oats:   からす麦

  • Miso:   味噌 (most probably contains gluten)

  • Tempura:   天婦羅 (most probably made with wheat flour)

MAKING JAPANESE FOOD GLUTEN FREE While there, I became aware that I could have eaten much more broadly in Japan if a few easy substitutions had been made. After some days on my own in Kyoto (during their spectacular cherry blossom time), I met up with my small group for a 12-day tour part of my Geographic Expeditions group for a 12-day tour called Journey Through Ancient Japan with Don George. We spent some days in and around Kyoto then  continued on to rural Shikoku Island to the south. Don George is a seasoned travel writer and everything you’d want in a traveling companion and guide – knowledgeable, smart, funny, generous, open to people and experiences, and fluent in spoken Japanese. Akihiro Kasagi, who’s from Kobe and is a Government Certified Tour Guide based in Kyoto, was our excellent local guide for the whole trip. When I signed up for the trip, I asked GeoEx if gluten free eating in Japan would be possible. They checked, said yes and I was well taken care of by Hiro. When we stopped for snacks along the road, he read the labels of numerous packages of mochi sweets to tell me which were wheat flour-free so were safe for me to eat. Mochi is made from sweet, glutinous rice so I’d never even thought they might contain gluten. He also arranged for excellent and interesting GF substitutions at our various hotels, ryokans and restaurants, sometimes sending a small dish back to the kitchen to be exchanged for another dish I could eat. I learned much about Japanese food from him. One of the most enjoyable places we stayed was an informal, family-oriented eco-resort called Kaiyu on the semi-tropical south west side of Shikoku Island. It’s near scenic Cape Ashizuri and has its own onsen (hot springs bath) overlooking Ooki Beach on a lovely section of the Pacific Ocean.

Kaiyu-Inn is run by a charming couple, Mitsuhiro and Tae Okada. Mitsu builds the hotel’s furniture and stokes the onsen’s furnace with recycled wood. Tae is an inventive, natural cook who turns local organic produce and fish into gorgeous food for her family and the hotel’s guests. There were a number of delicious-looking dishes Tae served that contained soy sauce or dashi so I couldn’t try them.  As our GeoEx group was leaving, she asked me what I can eat. At the time, I couldn’t think of a short answer that would be relevant to her so said something vague – and have been thinking of a better, fuller answer ever since. Here it is, geared for Tae’s Japanese cooking:

  • Use gluten free tamari in place of soy sauce (it’s readily available in Japan) and tastes just like soy sauce).

  • Substitute rice flour for wheat flour in dishes like tempura.

  • Use a gluten free miso (ie, a miso made with rice (kome or genmai), buckwheat (sobamugi), or millet (kibi) instead of one made with gluten-containing barley (mugi ortsubu), wheat (tsubu) or rye (hadakamugi).

  • Check the ingredients lists for other ready made sauces and products to make sure they don’t contain wheat, barley or rye.

I don’t think these changes would sacrifice any of the inventiveness and yummy taste of Tae’s – or anyone’s – delicious cooking. Read more about the delightful KAIYU-INN. Read more about the long term dangers of eating GLUTEN. Read more about INFLAMMATION.

REFERENCES Batalion, N. (2013). Wheat & GMOs Getting Us ALL Sick: Gluten Intolerance. Before It’s News. See Brown, A. (2012). Gluten Sensitivity: Problems of an Emerging Condition Separate from Celiac Disease. Expert Review of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 6:1, 43-55. See MedScape: Gluten Free Passport: Communicate Around the World with Restaurant Translation Cards for Gluten & Allergy Free Diets. See Kresser, C. (2014). 50 Shades of Gluten (Intolerance). Huffington Post. See Select Wisely: Translation Cards for Food and Drug Allergies, Special Diets and Medical Needs. See © Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.



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