I remember this pain. I rolled over, expecting to see the sun peeping over the low-rises in downtown Koriyama, but what really roused me was the churning sensations in my stomach. I had let my guard down during my first week or so in Japan, eating unknown foods and dressings and letting open the gates for my old arch enemy, Gluten.
Now that it’s my third week here, I’m teaching full days of classes – up to eight a day – and there is little break between each lesson. 40-minute session, 10 minute in-between (unless the previous class runs over), repeat. It’s a wonderfully structured system, each session focusing on very specific target language the student should be able to use effectively by the end and remember it for the next time the lesson is repeated.
I mentioned before how English teachers must be part entertainer, and when you’re immobilized by pain down below, it shows up above; by the end of the day, my efforts to smile and keep upbeat for the students have exhausted me. I’m afraid my glum silence and moments of outright confusion might put off my co-workers – the other day, a fellow teacher asked me several times for a certain file, and for all my frustrated efforts to focus and acquiesce his request, I could barely function enough to answer him with a full sentence. I even opted out of a Tokyo trip with the school for fear that I might have to spend some pretty yen on medical advice and meds or, worse, draw more unnecessary attention to my, frankly, annoying situation during the trip.
However, I’m lying low now, planning carefully my next grocery store attack. I didn’t come 6,600 miles across the world to not sample Japan’s best, and it’s not as if though this subject hasn’t been breached already by gaijin bloggers who have been braving the wheat beast in Japan for some years now. Of course, there are a few Japanese dishes I absolutely must push from my mind, ne’er to be tasted by my lips:
Miso soup – it comes with nearly every meal and can include such base ingredients as soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, and wheat. One can find that almost-legendary fifth taste, umami, in several kinds of miso. I had at least two bowls, wittingly, during my first three days in Japan.
Soy sauce – Many of my students, because food can be such a popular topic in class to rouse discussion, now know of my allergy. Though at first I believed their incredulous “Eeeeeehhhhhs?” to be a typically polite Japanese expression of interest, I’ve found, even talking with students in the medical field and reading up on what little research there is on the subject here, that gluten sensitivity is hardly known to the Japanese population. Many students have been intrigued with what toppings I put on my sashimi or sushi, and when I answer “nothing” or “just wasabi”, I receive another adorably astounded “Eeeeeehhhhh?”
Soba Noodles – Like 711s, soba joints dot the cityscape of Koriyama, offering cheap, delicious, and filling lunches. And, like ramen noodles, packed with gluten.
Amazingly, halfway through writing this, my belly aching serendipitously let up as I thought of the Japanese treats I can eat and some I have yet to try:
Sashimi & sushi – While I’ve already had my fair share of both since arriving, I can’t wait for more. Despite the absence of soy or tamari sauce, I find the fresh fare delicious as is, particularly the octopus, which has an excellent texture and savory taste.
Yatsuhashi – Made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon and stuffed tortilla—like in appearance, these confectionaries are ubiquitous in the sweet shops lined in front of supermarkets in Koriyama.
Mochi – I’ve been dreaming of this rice paste before my arrival. Though a gluten-avoider should be prudent to read the packaging to make sure only rice flour has been used to dust the squares, most mochi is gluten-free and can be mixed with a bean paste and sugar for a tasty snack, according to several of my students.
Watch this mouthwatering preparation of sweet mochi.
Edamame – At restaurants in the States, it’s sometimes stale popcorn or tortilla chips. Here, it’s delightfully fresh, bright green edamame.
O-nigiri – Found lining the shelves and in abundance at every 7-11 and Family Mart, these little triangular seaweed-wrapped sandwiches are great lunchtime snacks (though I stick to only the plain ones, as others contain wheat additions).
There have been a few times when, cocky from such a long run of a pain-free stomach and clear head (well, not all of the time), I believed Celiac’s Disease to be another ailment manufactured in the hypochondriac portion of the brain. Now that the angry gluten gods have made me humble once again, I’m taking my kanji learning for the grocery store more seriously and being – politely – suspicious of all restaurant foods.
In addition, a student who happens to have some interest in the field of food allergies would like to meet with me, discussing the possibility of studying the effects of Chinese herbal remedies on my body. I have little to say on this area, but I’ll treat it with the same approach I take in any life situation: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, unless it has gluten.
(list much like this one; first alerted me to teas with gluten in them and gluten-free soy joy bars)
(helpful dietary restriction cards to show waiters at restaurants)