A low carb member of a diabetes board I belong to asked whether she would be able to eat anything in Japan were she to visit this country, as she was under the impression that Japan is a high carb eating society focused on rice and noodles. Well, she didn’t quite put it that way, but that was what she imagined Japan to be. I’m sure many diabetics out there probably think the same way. I thought a post might be helpful to introduce how I see Japan from a carbs point of view. This post is a re-writing of my response to her.
Japan: more than rice and noodles
Yes, Japan is a rice- and noodles-eating country, as are many eastern Asian countries. But that doesn’t mean that a low carber will starve here. If you are not a rice and noodle eater, then I think you’ll survive. It is easier for a low carber, than it is for a vegetarian, to survive in Japan.
Foreigners who see only rice and noodles forget that Japan is a major fish eating country and that vegetables are a regular part of the diet. They may also not be aware that although meat may not have been a part of the traditional Japanese diet, the Japanese people have embraced it. For instance, when I organized a BBQ party for my husband’s recent birthday and checked with a Japanese friend whether she had dietary restrictions, she replied with “I am Japanese. Of course I eat meat.” Whether she’s just a meat-loving person, I don’t know, but meat restaurants are certainly popular here.
Who may have some difficulty?
If you are a strict very low carb eater, eating under 30 grams of carbs a day, then you are likely to have more difficulty than an ordinary low carber (that is, one whose carb allowance is higher than 30 grams), or a lower or moderate carber (that is, one whose carb allowance is somewhere between 100 to say 120 grams, or slightly higher). I strongly recommend very low carbers to do a massive amount of research as to what you can eat that will not tip you over your 30 grams of daily carb allowance. But I suspect you do that anyway.
If you are a rice and noodle eater, say you are from Southeast Asia, then you may find the abundance of rice and noodles tempting. But that would be no different from home.
Based on my limited observations, foreigners (and they may or may not be low carbers) often have difficulty with food in Japan for two general reasons:
(1) Serving sizes – Most foreigners are so used to huge food servings that it is not easy to cope with smaller servings. For me, though, the meal sizes here, even without the rice, are adequate.
(2) Lack of familiarity with the food – Many foreigners do not eat what Japanese people eat, such as fish (at least for breakfast), fermented beans (natto), squid that does not resemble a battered or deep fried Western-style calamari, gizzards, liver, chicken hearts and octopus, to name but a few. However, if you are adventurous and open to different types of food, you will not starve here.
Tourists have to pay attention as to whether their stay comes with breakfast. Most ryokan (Japanese style hotels) outside Tokyo serve Japanese style breakfasts, which usually come with natto, soft boiled or raw egg, fish, pickled veggies and miso soup. But if breakfast does not come with your stay, I suggest visiting the supermarket or department store the night before. Or, ask for the nearest “family restaurants” that may be open either 24 hours or at least from early morning. Normally, in addition to high carb breakfasts, you can get eggs, sausages and other meat dishes.
Except for a few dishes (like fried rice or omelette rice), rice is served separately, so you can ignore it and eat the meat or fish and vegetables that comprise the rest of a typical Japanese meal. You can also ask the server to hold the rice. I do this fairly often, and restaurant servers, though surprised, have no problem complying.
If you order a donburi, a rice bowl, eat the top and skip the rice at the bottom. That is easier than asking them to hold the rice, so I wouldn’t recommend asking the restaurant to do that.
Do not order fried or sautéed noodle dish because it’s not worth picking out just the few diced pieces of meat, seafood or vegetables.
What else to avoid
Avoid going to soba shops and ramen shops because they often do not serve anything but soba (for the soba shops), and ramen and gyoza or fried dumplings for ramen shops. But in some ramen shops, you can ask the waiters to hold off on the ramen and just serve the meat and soup (and add some other ingredients at a minimal cost). I’ve done this several times since I’ve learned that I miss the taste of the soup more than the ramen noodles. No ramen shop owner or staff has ever given me a hard time. Just do not ask that they give you a discount for choosing not to eat the noodles.
Avoid tempura and tonkatsu, unless you are good at removing the batter.
Avoid cha han or fried rice, and om rice or omelette rice (which is a lot of rice drenched in ketchup wrapped in egg).
Some Japanese dishes come with sweet thick sauces, like tonkatsu and yakisoba (which you wouldn’t be eating anyway) and a few fish dishes, but they are not the norm (at least, I don’t think so). Try to avoid them. And no, teriyaki anything is not popular here.
I find that most of the sauces or broth-like thin sauces in Japanese dishes are savory. Some sauces will probably have some sugar, but the addition is minute. In case of doubt, don’t eat too much of the sauce, and don’t forget to taste and test your blood glucose.
A few dishes may be salty, such as salted dried salmon, as they are meant to be eaten with rice. But there are many other dishes that are not that salty. If you find a dish too salty, you may want to ask for sliced cabbage, salad, or tofu, or drink more tea or water.
Where can you go?
One of the things I love about major Japanese cities are the department stores and their food floors (normally the basement) where you will find cooked dishes. Visiting the food floors of department stores is an experience in itself; therefore, you should do it anyway. In any case, food floors give you a lot more non-carb options than supermarkets and most definitely convenience stores, where low carb choices are very, very limited.
Lunch should not be a problem. Typical lunch, at least in Tokyo, is a set meal and usually comes with a small serving of green salad or pickled vegetables and miso soup, with rice on the side, and at reasonable prices. In most places, there will at least be one meat or fish dish on the menu.
For dinner, you can go to an izakaya (Japanese bar or drinking establishment) or similar style Japanese restaurant, and order yakitori (with salt or ta-re which tends to be sweet), fish, squid, octopus, gizzards, gyu suji (beef stew), tofu, edamame, broiled fish, and many other dishes. Many izakaya have picture menus. Japanese people do not usually eat carbs when they drink, so you’ll be safe.
If find yourself at a sushi restaurant, go for sashimi (raw fish without the rice).
There are also many shabu-shabu, yakitori (grilled chicken) and yakiniku (grill-the-meat-yourself restaurants) restaurants to choose from.
Many restaurants also offer hamburg (or hamburger steak), that is, a big patty without the bun. They come with a sweetish sauce, which you can just swipe off before eating.
Didn’t I tell you Japan is a meat loving country?
Of course you do not have to limit yourself to Japanese food. Tokyo is one of the best places (if not the best) to eat in the world. In most Italian restaurants (even if it calls itself a pasta house or pizzeria), you can find more than one non-pasta and non-pizza dish (although for economic reasons, that may not be the case at lunch; but certainly at dinner). In French bistros, you have meat and salad dishes to choose from. Just say no to the bread. Except for the very cheap Chinese restaurants, Chinese restaurants offer a combination of meat and vegetables, for lunch or dinner. I know of friends who have asked the kitchen to reduce the cornstarch. Brazilian barbecue places and the sprouting BBQ restaurants are additional choices.
If none of the foregoing appeals to you, you can always fall back on steak or a pork dish which many restaurants offer.
Some of you may be wondering about something called shirataki (called miracle noodles in the US), made from a yam called devil’s tongue yam, or elephant yam, or konyac yam (kon-nyaku). It’s low calorie, low carb and can be quite chewy (but the manufacturers are getting better at lessening the chewiness). Shiritaki is getting popular in Japan, so much so that sometimes the supermarkets run out of them. Unfortunately, I’ve only found them in supermarkets and not in restaurants.
Teas, hot or cold, are ubiquitous here. Restaurants often offer them (usually oolong tea) for free with your lunch. And they do not have sugar or gum syrup in them, except for canned “royal” milk tea and Starbucks tea lattes (but Starbucks will gladly hold the syrup at your request).
At night, if you are not an alcohol drinker, oolong tea is always an option but diet coke (or coke zero) is usually not.
Sake is high in sugar compared to shochu, so I would suggest trying shochu. But of course if you don’t overindulge, then you should be fine with sake. As always, test. Oh, and decent wine is everywhere, at least in Tokyo.
Canned coffee may be a problem as a number of them are sweetened. Luckily, many have English descriptions, such as “black coffee”, to guide you.
For the lactose intolerant like myself, soy milk is usually unsweetened. A word of warning, though, some soy milk tastes like liquid tofu. My personal favorite is – http://www.k-tounyu.jp/03_lineup/02-002.html.
Words that can help you get by
Watashi wa tou-nyou-byou ga arimasu. I have diabetes.
Tan-sui-kabutsu ga tabenai. I do not eat carbohydrates.
Amai-mono ga tabenai. I do not eat sweet things.
Pan ga tabenai. I do not eat bread.
Men ga tabenai. I do not eat noodles.
Maybe you’ve noticed that tabenai means “(I do) not eat.”
I hope I’ve given a general guide to pique your interest in visiting Japan, and that this post will encourage low carb folks and diabetics to visit us.