Web Only ArticleJanuary 1, 2008

Wheat-Free Adventures in Japan

Eating safely in Asia.


Japan was the last place on earth I expected to live. Yet four years ago,my celiac husband, Tim, and I were transferred 6,000 miles away from our home in Chicago, IL to a world far beyond our imagination. 

Being gluten-free in America was challenging, but we had developed a comfortable routine. Tim made two loaves of gluten-free bread each Saturday. We bought a variety of gluten-free foods and experimented with baking mixes. We read menus carefully and spoke to wait staff and chefs. Our family and friends understood and supported our efforts to maintain Tim's diet. Change the environment and spoil the routine. We had to start over in Tokyo.

Thankfully, Japanese ingredients are fairly straightforward, healthy and delicious. Stove-top preparation predominates over baking. Rice predominates over bread and pastry. Most meats and vegetables are grilled, boiled or stir-fried. Food is cut to bite-size so that chopsticks can be used. Desserts, if served at all, consist of bean paste, ice cream or fruit.

Tim quickly learned to avoid certain standard foods that might contain gluten, like soy sauce and soba noodles (traditionally buckwheat, but may be blended with wheat flour) and to make it a practice to ask if "komugi" (wheat) is used as a thickening agent in some of the foods. Some Japanese favorites are strictly off limits, such as tempura (batterdipped, deep fried fish and vegetables), ramen noodle soup (popular at lunch), and tonkatsu (a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet). But by using his own bottle of wheatfree soy sauce, Tim feels fairly safe with most Japanese cuisine. Plenty of Japanese dishes don't contain gluten, but they do contain ingredients you just won't find at home.

For the uninitiated, Japanese cuisine needs some exploration and study.