Traveling can prove to be a challenge for those with food allergies not to mention traveling overseas to a country where knowledge about food allergies such as gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease remains fairly limited.
During our recent travels in Japan, I had an opportunity to experience these challenges first hand.
For me, there is nothing better than visiting a foreign country and immersing yourself in the culture and the delicious cuisine. Initially I was a bit apprehensive because a majority of Japanese recipes rely on ingredients that contain gluten such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, mirin, miso, etc. or do not comply with my blood type diet requirements. The last thing I wanted to do was to have a gluten reaction or suffer from damaging inflammation while overseas.
Fortunately, everything went much better than expected until our last day in Japan when we visited Akihabara before returning to Los Angeles.
As many of us who suffer from gluten intolerance have learned from experience, always read the ingredients and always ask lots of questions. Sometimes the ingredient listings in foreign countries are not very reliable as the labeling requirements differ from one place to another. The rule of thumb is that if you are in doubt, it is better to do without.
For example, during our flight to Tokyo, the flight attendants were extremely helpful in ensuring that my gluten-free needs were met but even they have their limitations. For a snack I was served a diet Pepsi or Pepsi Nex, King of Zero as it is known in Japan and a bag of “Rice Crackers.” Rice is normally safe for my consumption and I do well with rice cakes however, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I read the ingredients and sure enough, flour was listed as an ingredient. Using rice powder combined with flour obviously passes as “rice crackers” in Japan. Eating these would have resulted in my exchanging my coach seat for a first class ticket to the lavatory for the duration of the flight!
Aside from that one instance, I ate delicious and safe meals onboard ANA and when we arrived at Ueno Station to catch the bullet train to Nagano, I was not hungry. The first day of travel went extremely well.
From that point we spent a few days in Nagano, best known for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. We were staying with relatives and my sister-in-law went out of her way to cook tasty, gluten-free meals for me. I was really moved by all of her efforts and appreciated all the care she put into accommodating me.
In Nagano, I ate mostly veggies and fish and of course rice is a staple with every meal, even breakfast!
On the first full day in Nagano, breakfast consisted of an omelet with sliced, sautéed okra, sautéed eggplant, rice and pink grapefruit juice. For lunch, we enjoyed rice spaghetti with sautéed onions and seaweed which was very tasty and healthy. The rice pasta had a good consistency and was not mushy like some of the rice pastas I have tried in the U.S. Rather than using regular soy sauce which contains gluten, my sister-in-law purchased special soy sauce made from sardines which tasted very similar to regular soy sauce except it was a little saltier. I even brought this soy sauce with me when we went to the conveyer belt sushi restaurant! For dinner that night, I was served sautéed eggplant with fresh basil, fish sautéed with fresh veggies, rice, sliced cucumbers and a clear broth vegetable soup that was fantastic!
With pretty severe jetlag, having good, nourishing meals saved me from spending a majority of my vacation in Japan sleeping! The Japanese eat three small meals three times a day and a majority of what they eat consists of fresh veggies, fruit, fish and rice. The red meat they consume is on the fatty side but very tender. They consume a lot of fried foods as well and fried chicken (karaage) is a favorite. Karaage can even be purchased at convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart!
While in Nagano, I did treat myself to vanilla Japanese softo crème (soft serve ice cream). If you have never tried it, please do so as the texture and flavor are unlike anything you have ever had in the U.S. Normally, I can eat Bryer’s vanilla ice cream at home, it is gluten-free and I knew I was taking a big chance here but I did not neglect to pack my Indiana Jones hat on the trip to Japan!
Happily, the ice cream did not produce a reaction and I even tried some when we visited Asakusa Temple in Tokyo later in the week.
Once in Tokyo, we pretty much stuck to simply grilled dishes except for the night we went to an Izakaya (a type of Japanese drinking establishment which also serves food to accompany the drinks) and a karaoke bar with some friends. At the Izakaya, I only drank red wine and ate the sashimi with a little bit of wasabi since my sardine soy sauce was left behind in Nagano. Other safe menu items included small dishes of French fries and grilled fish.
The Japanese tend to marinate all of their grilled meat with soy sauce and we had to specifically explain that I had a severe gluten allergy and that my meat was to be cooked plain. Most of the time the wait staff was happy to comply. When we visited a restaurant in Odaiba, where the Rainbow Bridge is located, the waiter thoroughly washed off the marinade from my meat and I did not have a reaction after grilling it with only salt & pepper (shio & kosho).
This was not the case when we visited Akihabara on our last day in Japan. We spoke to the waitress and the cook at Peppe R Diner, a big chain in Japan with outlets even at Narita airport, about the grilled meat and they assured us that it was not marinated. As a matter of fact, when I ate my steak, I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of salt and pepper they used. Unfortunately, the staff at this restaurant was not very reliable because within 20 minutes of eating my entrée a rash broke out on my right arm and I had nausea during the entire 11-hour flight. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very severe reaction and I didn’t have to spend the return flight strapped in to the lavatory.
Traveling overseas with any type of a food allergy can be risky but with planning and diligence it can be both a rewarding and enjoyable experience. To be glutened just once in the eight days we traveled throughout Japan constitutes a successful vacation for me. I would highly recommend it to anyone else and I look forward to going back myself.