Eating out in Japan is more than just an enjoyable way to breath in second-hand smoke. It’s a tradition, it’s a pastime and at times it’s an obligation. Bonenkai (忘年会, year-end parties), in which eating out simply cannot be avoided, are December traditions. So for the Paleo crowd, how can this potentially gastrointestinally-disturbing situation be navigated safely? If, while you’re here, you have to be a restaurant-goer, knowing as much as you can is the only thing that is going to keep you safe. Even still, making it a treat (bending the rules to whatever degree you’re comfortable with) and not stressing about it is probably the best way to stay sane: especially when it comes to gatherings for the express purpose of drinking (Nomi-kai－飲み会), you’re going to have your hands full controlling the damage anyway.
What follows is a guide to restaurants in descending order of preference followed by a collection of Japanese words and phrases that came up in the process.
To be upfront with you, my loyal reader, I feel like I have to lie a lot to get through some meals: “I have a ______ allergy” (“_________ arerugi ga arimasu”) is the refrain I repeat everywhere I go. Wheat is the one that comes up the most, and is the easiest to solve by pleading allergies, but similar claims about soy (daizu―大豆) or dairy (nyuseihin―乳製品) would probably be just as effective, if you don’t mind stretching the truth. You may be in for a ribbing from your Japanese friends for your pickiness or the “spiritual weakness of character” that allergies are thought to be by the older generation. I remind myself that, with my wife’s father for example, I can either ignore him or look like him. It makes for an easy decision.
About Japanese in this article: I have included notes, simply, on how to describe your desires to the wait-staff, in Japanese, where they seemed appropriate. I will collect all of the phrases, kanji and their meanings at the bottom of this guide. These phrases are not, however, going to save you if you’ve been asked a detailed question about what you can and cannot eat and do not speak Japanese at all yourself. For that I leave you to rely on your own abilities and resourcefulness, and hope you don’t have as many miss-adventures as I did.
Best of the Best
I chose these three because they are generally good places to get a meal fairly well balanced, with plenty of meat and access to vegetables. In addition, these three tend to be staffed by people who speak Japanese pretty well, so asking questions (for those who can) becomes an easier task.
Yakitori is relatively easy to eat paleo: the main dish, grilled pieces of chicken on a stick is paleo, as long as you get it with no sauce (tare nashi―タレ無し). Other dishes range from absolutely fine (cut up cucumbers with sesame seed oil and garlic or ginger) to completely out (Tempura, fried chicken, etc.), but since they generally make all of their own food on the premises and they also speak Japanese, you can generally be pretty sure that if you ask if something has wheat in it (komugi ga haite imasu ka?－小麦が入っていますか？) you’re going to get an informed answer about whatever item you’re interested in. One thing to note, however: many Japanese people don’t know that soy sauce (shoyu―醤油) has wheat in it. For things like soups, stews and the like you can save yourself by making the question about shoyu rather than komugi (shoyu ga haite imasu ka?), just in case the staff doesn’t know.
Yaki (grill) niku (meat) is pretty easy to eat paleo: get your veggies and meat with no sauce, don’t put sauce on them yourself, and yaki-away until you cannot walk any more. They will bring you the meat and veggies, you grill them and consume like the deadlifting-bear you are. The key here is ordering with no sauce (tare nashi―タレ無し) or with salt and pepper only (shio-kosho dake―塩こしょうだけ). The sauce I mentioned above? Most people eat yakiniku by dipping their grilled up meat in one of the sweet, sticky, spicy or just wonderful sauces that have been provided at the table. We, the ‘cares about our health’ section of the population, cannot. So what to do instead? I tend to eat with salt and pepper only, but often yakiniku places will provide lemon juice for those interested (it might be sitting at your table). The other option is sesame oil (Goma-Abura－胡麻油), which can be ordered, a-salt and peppered, and used like a sauce for those interested. The biggest bonus of Yakiniku is undoubtedly that most places are “all you can eat” (or at least have that option). Sit down hungry and get your meat on.
Shabu-shabu follows essentially the same pattern as yaki-niku: they bring you ingredients in the form of meat and veggies of various kinds, and you cook them. The principle difference is that with shabu-shabu you’re cooking your food in a soup hot-pot filled with, at times, suspicious sauces. The safest thing to do is to get the plain ‘konsome’ seaweed soup; the others, like sukiyaki (made with soy sauce), soy-milk (tonyu―豆乳, made with soy as you might have guessed), and others are out for one reason or another. On the menu konsome soup usually has the clear liquid with the seaweed in it/ being pulled out of it, so pointing and grunting usually works in this situation. Like yakiniku, this meal comes with a variety of sweet and tasty sauces to be avoided. Now, this might not actually sound all that wonderful a treat for you (meat and veggies boiled with seaweed plain?), but there are a couple of things you can do to make it tasty: get some sesame oil (goma-abura―胡麻油, just like we did in yakiniku) to dip your meat/ veggies in, get a raw egg (like you would for sukiyaki, don’t worry completely safe) and mix some pepper and salt into it and dip in that, or experiment with shichimi (七味). All-in-all, since we’re going without sauce, I’d prefer to have my meat grilled, but this is a “compromise” I’m happy to make. It also comes in “all you can eat” flavor, which means that I will head home full, a plus.
Victim of playing against the best
Indian Restaurants (インド料理)
Nearly everything in an Indian Restaurant in Japan that isn’t obviously out for the paleo-vore is in, which is nice: avoid the nan and the rice, avoid the curries that have beans and you’re basically set: tandoori meats are wonderful, the mutton/ seafood/ chicken curries are fine… a common curry in Japan, that I didn’t see in American Indian restaurants (not to be confused with American-Indian Restaurants, which I’m not sure exist and sound creepy anyway) is called ‘Butter Chicken’. It’s just awesome… but it tastes like it has some sugar in it. Here we get to why Indian is in my second tier: they sometimes speak English but not always and not always well; they often speak Japanese, but not often well. It’s hard enough for a beginner in Japanese to communicate with someone who actually speaks the language, let alone use it to communicate to someone else who isn’t perfect him- or herself. This makes asking questions, like “is there sugar in this?” difficult. So, go to Indian restaurants with the knowledge that you might be getting just a little sugar in your delicious curry.
Much of what I said about Indian food goes for Thai, except that there are more dishes that cannot be eaten. The problem is, again, that it’s hard to ask about the content of the food in many shops. Compounding the problem is the decreased rate of English competency in Thai places.
I love Thai food. Further, there are lots of things you can eat safely at Thai places: Green Curry, Red Curry, Yellow Curry (all without the rice), various salads with beef or pork or papaya or squid, omelets, basil-chicken stir-fries… it’s almost always safe, and it’s always great. Further, it’s perhaps the cheapest meal of its kind.
Melts under pressure
Here referring to larger chains like “Hananomai”, “Uotami”, “Warawara” etc. izakaya are drinking establishments, but unlike bars they serve a lot of food, mostly Japanese style. The foods will often run the gamut from yakitori (fine if ordered as above) to okonomiyaki (a straight-up “no”), and generally be of poor quality and relatively expensive. Still, with most menus you can get something that will work (a grilled Hokke ほっけ, yakitori, etc), they speak Japanese and have to be ultra-careful about ‘arerugi’ because they’re national chains with reputations to uphold. So why put them in the second tier? Well one, there’s the temptation: the foods at an Izakaya that you can eat are much less tasty than the ones you can’t; also these places are made for drinking. Two their foods are mostly pre-prepared, so some special orders (“can I get this without sauce/dressing?” “Can you make the eggs without wheat? Oh, and by the way, WHAT THE FUCK?”) won’t fly, or at least take some insistence upon. Three their attention to detail is often so over the top as to be a larger pain the ass than is really necessary. Knowing what you can order and how to before actually ordering and a steely resolve not to give in and eat the fries and pizza that your friends ordered while the wait-staff is checking that there are no croutons on your salad, are indispensable skills.
It is probably important to note that smaller Japanese-style pubs are also called ‘izakaya’. It is impossible to really categorize these accurately, as some are yakitori shops, some do fish of some kind, and some just make diabetes. They’re a treat for those with the Japanese ability and cigarette-smoke tolerance to deal with their faults, because of their homey atmosphere and collection of foods you might not find anywhere else in the world. With no common menu and really no way of knowing what’s being served, however, I’d be remiss if I tried to give you specific advice (other than breath mints and a shower after, of course).
Chinese food in Japan is sometimes the cover-story for a ramen-ya who’s trying to keep a low profile about their vile poisonous-ness (to give you a preview of the LAST thing on my list, if you find yourself in one of these, you have 2 options: water or waiting outside). If a Chinese ｐlace has no ramen on the menu, Japanese customers will get cranky. Still, food can be found, so the real Chinese food places shouldn’t be completely ignored.
The problem, of course, is asking what’s in things. Like with Thai and Indian places, the waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants don’t always speak Japanese particularly well, and in this case rarely speak English. That said, you can give it a try. Some stuff is obvious: it’s cooked with noodles, or obviously with soy sauce or some sweet, sticky, different sauce, or it has rice in it, or it’s been breaded and had its brains fried out. With some other stuff it’s harder to tell. The only thing I’ve found that consistently works no matter where I go are seafood-stir fries (Kaisen Itame – 海鮮炒め). You may be dealing with some potato- flour in them to thicken the sauce; it’s still your best bet.
Serviceable but not getting you anywhere
We’ve come to the “overt compromise” portion of our review. Yes, technically, you can get through a meal at a sushi place while staying true to your paleo roots. If you do, you’ve either a) not eaten that much or b) spent too much. Who wants to do either of those? As compromises go this is one of our best: nearly everything is a known quantity (everything except the soy sauce and the eggs either obviously has gluten in it or it’s safe), and once you’ve given in on the rice and sugar, nearly everything is eatable. It’s a great way to bend the rules, and one that, for most people, has no lasting unhealthy consequences. The only things I would caution people about are egg-sushi (which sometimes have wheat-containing ‘dashi’ (出汁ーsoup stock) in them) and some of the newer ‘sushi’ that are making the rounds. If, for example, your sushi has yakiniku on it, in all likelihood it also has yakiniku sauce on it, and thus wheat. Sorry.
This is an area in which I have a decided bias: I have had bad, and very few, experiences at Korean Restaurants in Japan. It seems like, looking at menus, you would be able to get some meat with some kimchi and no sauce, but in my experiences I have never been able to communicate this desire effectively and ended up with a stomachache afterwords. Speaking Korean would be a big help; so would a completely fluent-in-Japanese wait-staff, but I have yet to have access to either. I wish I could be of more help to you, dear reader. Perhaps on another day we will be able to re-visit this topic, once my resentment has waned.
You’d think I’d be pretty ok with Gyu-don places: fried beef or pork on top of bowls of rice. You can even just get the meat without the rice, with an egg to eat it with. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the no-sauce option in these places is not an option, as all meals come pre-made. Yeah, a salad without the dressing is really your only gluten-free option. Since said salads contain nothing even resembling the caloric content required to feed a supple-leopard like yourself, you’re better off just walkin’ on by.
Nope, there’s nothing to eat here. Sorry.
Western Fast-Food Restaurants (Mc’ds, Subway, KFC, etc.)
If you go into one of these, as the saying goes, you know what you doing.
You know, sometimes you can get ahold of some meat to grill on the grill at your table in Okonomiyaki places. That grill has, however, been used by your friends and all of the customers before you to bake up death-pancakes of deliciousness, so whatever you’re grilling, you can pretty much guarantee it isn’t gluten free. Sorry.
Udon and Soba (うどん・そば)
If you’re paleo and you can find anything at all to eat in a place like this you’re lucky, patient, dumb or all three.
A good ramen-ya serves three things: ramen, gyoza and beer. Sometimes my stomach hurts looking at them.
1) How to Drink:
Many of you are looking for advice about drinking healthfully. I wrote about this already once, so I won’t repeat much, except for this:
The absolute best thing you can do for yourself when you’re drinking is to start and finish early. Try to place as much time between you last cup of wonderful and sleep. The reason for this is simple: all of the exercise you did, all of the walking and talking and dealing with people you don’t like and writing and whatever, none of it means anything positive for your health if your body cannot recover. This is an often overlooked fact about training: you don’t get skinnier by running, and you don’t get stronger by lifting. You get these benefits by resting, especially sleeping, after you’re done. Alcohol interferes with restful sleep, especially the most important part, the release of Human Growth Hormone. You know those drugs that athletes take to recover from injury and training faster? One of them is HGH. HGH is the hormone that you’re body has been feeding you all this time to help you re-build muscle when you’ve damaged them by being too awesome, and getting in its way by drinking yourself to sleep is not a good idea, health-wise.
2) Japanese Guide
Bonenkai 忘年会, year-end parties
Nomi-kai 飲み会, drinking parties
“_________ arerugi ga arimasu”___アレルギがあります “I have a ______ allergy”<
Nyuseihin ―乳製品, Dairy
Tare nashi―タレ無し, No Sauce
Komugi ga haite imasu ka?－小麦が入っていますか？ Is there wheat in it?
Shoyu―醤油, Soy Sauce
Shoyu ga haite imasu ka? ― 醤油が入っていますか？ Is there soy sauce in it?
Shio-kosho dake―塩こしょうだけ, Salt and pepper only
Goma Abura―胡麻油, Sesame Oil
Tonyu―豆乳, Soy Milk
Konsome ―コンソメ, Konsome
Shichimi ―七味, Shichimi
Hokke ほっけ, Hokke (a kind of fish)
Kaisen Itame – 海鮮炒め, Seafood-Stir Fry