Going to Tokyo, allergic to soy. Help me build a list of "safe" dishes!
May 25, 2014 9:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to Tokyo in the fall. I'm allergic to soy. It is an allergy triggered by the soy protein, which means that tofu and edamame are not OK but soy sauce is because the protein is denatured. (This is common for people who are allergic to soy - I am no special snowflake.) The easy solution would seem to be to live on yakitori and yakiniku...but I'm also a vegetarian. Difficulty level = 11!

I am attempting to build a list of "safe dishes" that I can eat, things that are likely not to have soy protein in them and where I don't have to eat pieces of meat. (I understand from vegetarian friends that it is very difficult to find a meat-free broth, and that I may have to pick slabs of meat off my food, and that's fine.) I am challenged in that I know very little about Japanese cuisine besides sushi and ramen. I am a big fan of seitan but don't know how to safely order it there.

Things I have found so far: I have discovered okonomiyaki, ramen with shio or shoyu broth (I know the broth will not be vegetarian and it may come with a slab of meat, but I will hand the meat over to my boyfriend and just eat the noodles without broth), tempura vegetables and kinpira gobu. Do you have any other suggestions for me?

I know it is possible to get cards that will alert people to my allergies, but I have heard that awareness of food allergies is low in Japan and thus the cards are often disregarded. Heck, it can be hard to get servers to acknowledge my food allergies in my native country, without a language barrier! So I would like the additional safety net of a list of foods that I can eat.
posted by rednikki to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Onigiri is the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich. The classic onigiri is rice, with a pickled plum in the middle, and a piece of nori (seaweed) on the outside.

But you can get them with other kinds of fillings, some meat or fish (not for you) and some vegetarian.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 PM on May 25, 2014

Okonomiyaki typically comes with a non-vegetarian protein, the default being pork, although seafood is also popular. Of course, it is easily taken out.

Are you allergic to miso as well?

Kushikatsu (individual fried foods on sticks) comes in several vegetable varieties.

Memail me if you need to learn how to say something in Japanese, or you want cards to show what you can/can't eat in Japanese.
posted by xmts at 10:10 PM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

agedashi nasu (deep fried eggplant)
Goma aae (spinach)
spinach (horenso) no ohitashi, though this often comes topped with bonito flakes in case you don't eat fish. Note: okonomiyaki usually has bonito flakes on top too, as well as many other dishes.
Any kind of kinpira. There are many kinds but kinpira gobo is most common. Sometimes meat or tofu can be mixed in so ask.
Sunomono. Literally meaning vinegared thing. Can be noodles, seafood, cucumber, seaweed. For example kuri no sunomono would be vinegared cucumbers.
Omurice. Delicious rice and ketchup omelette.
Kabocha. Japanese pumpkin.
satoimo. Taro root.
Tororo soba. Delicious but very slimy so you may not like it.
Soba and Udon with tempura. Served hot or cold.
Ten-zaru soba or udon is cold.
Tempura soba or Udon is hot.
Somen. Wheat noodles.
Chawanmushi. Egg custard.
Vegetable yakisoba.
Hiyashi Chuka without the meat. It's a summer dish so I don't know if they'll have it when you go.
Koroke. Mashed potatoes breaded and deep fried with tonkatsu sauce. Delicious but often comes with ground meat mixed in (my mom makes it without meat but I don't know how common that is).
Futomaki. Often has egg in it but I've never seen it with seafood.
Miso soup. Not like the tasteless stuff served outside japan.

I've never seen seitan in a Japanese restaurant in many years and I just saw this on its Wikipedia page--

In Japan, seitan, initially a rather salty macrobiotic seasoning that gradually evolved into a food, is not well known or widely available, despite the macrobiotic diet's Japanese origins.
posted by Blitz at 10:15 PM on May 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Things you could try:
vegetable curry (may have beef stock etc. at non-veg restaurants)
soba in its many forms, and udon
maybe the rice burger with mushrooms and vegetables at MOS Burger
Various sushi items such as futomaki and tamagoyaki
Sweets and pastries of many, many kinds
...well, Blitz has covered things pretty well, so I'll stop. :)

You'd probably better stay away from shojin ryori unless you're with someone who is fluent. And watch out for forms of tofu you might not have seen before, like aburaage and iridofu and natto. Hope miso is OK for you, because if not, the difficulty level is going to be a lot higher. :/

Here are some links about specific restaurants:
http://www.bento.com/r-veg.html (Tokyo-specific)

They might also give you more ideas of things to look for.

Good luck -- I really hope you can stay safe and have some good food and have a good time!
posted by wintersweet at 10:20 PM on May 25, 2014

As for the Japanese, you could say "(Watashi wa) daizu no arerugi (ah-reh-roo-gee (hard g)) arimasu" or "tofu no arerugi arimasu."
posted by zardoz at 1:44 AM on May 26, 2014

And a good thing you can have soy sauce--it's in everything! Soy sauce is ok = "Shoyu wa daijoubu (die-joe-boo) desu".
posted by zardoz at 2:01 AM on May 26, 2014

You could eat wagashi if you're not allergic to an/ anko (soybean paste). If not, maybe things like mitarashi dango or daifuku would be safe, and watch for anko fillings?

Konnyaku in jelly or noodles.
Takoyaki have an okonomiyaki-like sauce (and bonito flakes on top, if you can eat fish)
Sembei crackers are typical of Asakusa.
Taiyaki can have matcha or chocolate fillings, but I'm not sure if they don't use anko too.
posted by sukeban at 2:14 AM on May 26, 2014

Just a quick word on awareness of food allergies in Japan: I would say that it has become a very widely discussed issue, and it's not rare that the waiter will ask you proactively whether you have any allergies. Even if you buy a packet of cookies at a convenience store, you will see a mark that lists types of possible allergens in them, and that will most definitely include soy. I wouldn't be surprised if you get better care in regards to your allergies in Japan than in your home country, especially if you're going to Tokyo!

In terms of actual food, if you go to a restaurant that serves more traditional Japanese food, (as opposed to mixture of other cuisines like Ramen, Curry, Omrice) you will likely find many vegetarian small dishes, and they will likely only include a few ingredients, so it will be easy to pick out the ones you may like.
posted by snufkin5 at 3:27 AM on May 26, 2014

I spent a week eating mostly onigiri and sushi, as those could be had cheap and vegetarian (well, god knows--I kind of assumed I was going to have to eat some stray fish products). While tofu is something of a standby of US vegetarian sushi, there was lots of tamagoyaki going round conveyor belts and the vegetarian sushi in the supermarket was mostly pickled-vegetables. (Though if you're concerned about cross-contamination from soy, that could be an issue.) Onigiri-wise, if you don't read Japanese, it would probably be useful to write down the kanji for ume (pickled plum) and the seaweed you get in onigiri. Some convenience stores and supermarkets have pictures on the labels, but others don't. The convenience stores sell salads. They all have meat or shrimp in, but if you're willing to pick it out, that's an option. You can get egg sandwiches at some convenience stores as well. (Though are you concerned about soy products in bread?)

There are loads of Japanese-Indian curry restaurants, but since I didn't know Japanese I couldn't figure out if they served anything vegetarian. If you or someone you're with speaks/reads Japanese, that could be an option. (I did go to an actual Indian restaurant one night.)

There's a chain of soup restaurants in some train stations that lists ingredients in English. They have soups without chunks of meat in, but when I checked the ingredients, there was some sort of chicken/beef/fish brother base, but you could get lucky.

If you haven't booked accommodation and you're looking at hostels, finding places what have kitchens can help because you can make your own dinner. Me-mail me if you want the name of the place I stayed in Tokyo (which I'd recommend in any case, but has a kitchen and is near a supermarket).
posted by hoyland at 4:12 AM on May 26, 2014

Tokyo also has non-Japanese restaurants such as Italian.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:37 AM on May 26, 2014

Just to agree with snufkin5: awareness of food allergies in Japan has been, in my experience, very high. What is low is awareness of food regimens. Vegetarianism, therefore, is not well understood and is generally ignored, but people know that soba allergies can result in death, flour allergies in painful hives, etc. so folks pay attention to customers giving allergy warnings.
posted by Bugbread at 4:52 AM on May 26, 2014

Miso soup. Not like the tasteless stuff served outside japan.

Miso soup is based on soy.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 AM on May 26, 2014

Thanks, even better then!

(I honestly thought azuki was a variety of soy.)
posted by sukeban at 11:45 AM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a soy reactivity too (although mine is mild and possibly not an actual allergy), also with soy sauce=fine, tofu = bad, soy milk= evil. Since soy sauce is ok because the original protein isn't there, other fermented soy products (natto, maybe miso) might also be ok. Fwiw I haven't had issues with miso that I know of; haven't tried natto again cause I didn't like it. Could you ask your allergist if natto or miso are ok? Especially miso could increase the range of foods you can eat.
posted by nat at 2:35 PM on May 26, 2014

Hi everyone! Thanks very much. I have been tested against soy milk (very bad), soy sauce (fine) but have never been tested against miso. I will ask my doctor if I can do so in his office. Thank you all for helping me build a list. I would love to hear more suggestions! Keep 'em coming!
posted by rednikki at 3:51 PM on May 26, 2014

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