I have been living in Japan for nearly a decade and in that time, I have met many vegans, vegetarians, and people who otherwise have to avoid certain types of food for medical, religious, or other reasons. It’s not impossible to cut certain products out of your life, but it is far more difficult to do in Japan than many other countries.
Communicate Your Needs in Every Way Possible
It’s quite surprising to some newcomers that a country which prides itself in soy products and healthy living actually makes meatless living quite difficult. I remember one case in particular when I went out to have pasta with several friends. One of our friends was a vegetarian. We scoured the menu, and the pepper pasta seemed vegetarian friendly. Not taking any chances, we asked the waitress if it contained meat, and she told us that it didn’t. Relieved, my friend ordered that dish. When it arrived with the rest of our meals, we all sat there looking dumbfound at the dish our friend was given. It was topped with a layer of ham.
It’s quite surprising that a country which prides itself in soy products and healthy living actually makes meatless living quite difficult.
We argued with the waitress and the manager. They said that because we didn’t specifically ask for the dish without meat, they weren’t obligated to change our order. We still had to pay for the pasta, plus an additional one without meat. Luckily, we had a friend who was late to the restaurant and was happy to eat the otherwise unwanted pasta. While most restaurants would have made the effort to accommodate us, especially since we did ask about the contents prior to ordering, the story still stands as an example of the worst case scenario. If you have an allergy or dietary restriction, make sure to specify that you cannot have any such ingredients. Ask the server to check with the chef if there is any question about what is in your food.
Check and Recheck
There are some cases, as in the story above, where servers have no idea what is in the dish they are serving. They may give you the wrong information. I have one friend who cannot have ketchup. We were having lunch at McDonalds, and my friend asked the employee at the register whether the specialty sandwich had ketchup or any ketchup based sauce in it. The employee said no, that there was only a mayonnaise-based sauce, so my friend ordered the sandwich. Upon checking her order, my friend found that the sauce was a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise. Luckily, she was able to return the meal for a sauceless version. Always check your food before you eat it.
Read Labels Carefully
Reading labels is very important if you have any restrictions on what you can eat. There are many ingredients in traditional Japanese products and dishes that could catch people off guard.
GaijinPot blogger James Darnbrook’s article on supermarket shopping in Japan has a comprehensive list of food terminology. There is also a card you can print out if you need to avoid gluten. Finding gluten free products in general can be very difficult. Soy sauces, noodles, and a lot of Japanese dishes typically contain gluten. The word for gluten, グルテン (guruten), is rarely if ever listed on product labels. That means you need to look out for the various types of 麦 (mugi). There’s 小麦 (komugi) ライ麦 (raimugi) 大麦 (oomugi) and オーツ麦 (ootsumugi), meaning wheat, rye, barley, and oats respectively.
A big surprise for many foreign people is the fact that most of the ground beef in Japan is actually mixed with pork. If you need to avoid pork, make sure that the kanji for pork, 豚 (buta), is not on the label. 100% ground beef is very rare and typically only comes in small containers, unless you buy it at Costco or specifically ask for it from a butcher.
What’s in a Name?
Be very careful of nomenclature. Just because something sounds vegetarian or meatless does not mean that it doesn’t have meat. The Starbucks veggie wrap had a good helping of chicken in it. Tully’s four cheese focaccia has a layer of ham. Be very careful to check labels for contents and ask servers to not only verify that something does not have meat, but to make note that you do not want meat.
In Japan, “soy burgers” and “veggie burgers” do not necessarily mean that the item is vegetarian. It could simply mean that the main ingredient in the meat burger is soy or a veggie mix. Many patties sold at supermarkets as “soy burgers” also contain fish, squid, octopus, and/or egg.
Recently, almond milk and coconut milk have been popping up at various supermarkets and convenience stores. However, I have found items marketed as almond milk or coconut milk that were actually just milk with almond or coconut flavoring. The fact that it was actually milk was not noticeable anywhere except on the list of ingredients. This could be potentially disastrous for someone with dairy allergies. Always read the labels carefully.
Also be careful at cafes. There are many cafes that allow for drink customization, though it’s not as widespread as in other countries. If you ask for something made with soy milk, you will also need to specify that you don’t want whipped cream or any sort of cream on top. Nothing is more upsetting and frustrating than specifically asking for a soy non-dairy drink, and getting that perfectly non-dairy drink topped with a tower of cream. Apparently, it is considered health conscious and trendy to order soy milk but still have the drink made as usual with other dairy products. It’s the Japanese equivalent to ordering a “healthy” diet soda with your burger and fries.