When it comes to food, I consider myself lucky in that I have no allergy or intolerance, apart from lactose. Of course, being diabetic, I have to minimize, if not avoid, carbohydrates (especially simple carbs) to have better control of my blood glucose. That said, I can choose to indulge if and when I wish; of course, with full knowledge of its effects. This is the case with rice. I generally do not eat rice because rice of all sorts, white, brown, red, polished and unpolished, raises my blood glucose really really quickly. But now I have to avoid rice for another reason. It seems that I have developed an intolerance for it. Continue reading
Note: Day 5 DBlogWeek. Taking a cue from Adam Brown’s recent post, write a post documenting what you eat in a day! Feel free to add links to recommended recipes/shops/whatever. Make it an ideal day or a come-as-you-are day – no judgments either way. (Thank you, Katy of Bigfoot Child Have Diabetes for this topic.)
Pardon me for deviating from the topic but I thought this DBlogWeek prompt would be an apt opportunity to answer a question I often receive from friends and strangers, diabetic or not: What do I eat for lunch? I get this question because I live and work in Tokyo, where rice and noodles are among its staples. Since I do not bring my own lunch to the office, many wonder how I manage. Actually, it is not that difficult to find suitable dishes and restaurants in Tokyo, which is among the world’s top food meccas. In most cases, rice is either served in a separate bowl or placed at the bottom of the bowl (as in rice bowls). Instead of describing food options, which I’ve done before (here), I’ll let you see for yourselves some of the reasonably priced choices available at restaurants and food courts near my office.
I, my husband and a couple of friends from Tokyo who accompanied us to the race arrived at our ryokan in the town of Higashiyama Onsen in the late afternoon before the race. The train journey from Tokyo station to Aizu Wakamatsu station consisted of a Shinkansen ride, a local train ride and about half an hour of waiting time in between. From Aizu Wakamatsu station, our inn was a short taxi ride away. The journey was pleasant as I had great company and the May countryside landscapes outside the train window were lovely. We saw not just vibrant green mountains and late spring wild cherry trees (yamazakura), but also snow-capped mountain ranges (Mt. Bandai and the Azuma Mountain Range) in the distance. Continue reading
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.
I love food. I love the different textures, aromas, flavors, tastes and presentations of food. Food is sensual, seductive, warming, comforting and satisfying. It is a source of enormous pleasure. Thus, it saddens me to hear people say that to them food is just fuel.
I am a gourmand. By gourmand, I mean someone who enjoys eating and drinking, and appreciates good food and good wine, without the pretense and elitism that I associate with a gourmet or a foodie. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I’m a gastronomic hedonist, maybe not in a philosophical sense, but in a real, day-to-day dining and imbibing sense. My love for food is matched only by my love for wine and spirits. I’m not talking about overpriced dishes in expensive restaurants. Good food does not have to be high-priced, and inexpensive dishes do not have to rotate only among three tastes (bland, too sweet or too salty). I’ve had excellent meals in fine restaurants as well as in rundown dim sum houses, makeshift street-side eateries, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and people’s homes. I love to try new places, new recipes and new dishes. I don’t just eat to live, I live to eat.
Appreciation of food came late to me. I’m from a country the cuisine of which, despite having Spanish, American, Chinese and Southeast Asian influences, is sadly eclipsed by the spicy, exciting and visually pleasing cuisines of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Although my mother made sure her children had fresh meat, fish and produce, I did not grow up on exceptional cooking. It was after I moved to Tokyo, at the age of 31, that I came to discover and fully appreciate the pleasures of good food. I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do, and tried my best to make up for lost time.
Just in case you are speculating that I became obese with all this good eating, it was in fact the other way around. Before I took up food appreciation as a serious pursuit, my life revolved around work, and the pressures of building a career steered me towards junk food, soda and rice, noodles and pasta. At that time, food was indeed no more than fuel to me. Naturally, my weight started piling up. But, when I started eating for the sheer pleasure of it, I lost weight (at the same time, I quit smoking and returned to running). I found that really good, fresh, whole food does not have to be eaten in heaps to be satisfying and filling, is best eaten slowly and is definitely best when shared with good and equally appreciative company. Not only did I lose weight, I was also enjoying myself immensely.
Thus, I was devastated, depressed and angry, when, a few years later, my doctor diagnosed me with Type 2 diabetes. I researched and visited online diabetes boards and forums to learn about my condition and how to live with it. A few months after my diagnosis and research, I became convinced that I had to adopt the diet that everyone promised will save me from becoming blind, hooked to a dialysis machine and legless, and from taking medication for the rest of my life. That also meant turning my back on many types of food and dishes. My blood glucose numbers were to die for, and my A1c even plunged below 5% a couple of times. But instead of rejoicing, I was extremely unhappy.
This diet is boring and restrictive. I feel deprived.
I’m sluggish and always sick. I’m no longer enjoying running and socializing. Where’s the boundless energy that everyone on this diet is talking about?
I have lost my appetite. I don’t enjoy food and eating anymore.
I can’t stop thinking about food and eating.
I’m turning into a cantankerous food cop. I detest people who can eat anything they want.
Heck, that fake low-carb margarita mix looks tempting.
After more than half a year of trying to make this diet work for me, I had enough. Although that diet was effective for many people (especially diabetics), it was clearly not the diet for me. I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way. The question I should have been asking was not “what do I eat” but “how do I want to live and die,” and the latter question leads to the bigger question of “who and what am I.”
I’m a hedonist and a diabetic. I cannot choose between them, and neither takes precedence over the other. I am a gastronomic hedonist to the core. Eating and drinking well are a big part of me. I draw immense pleasure from them. At the same time, I am also diabetic and there is no use denying it. I know that I need to find a way of eating while minimizing the risk of complications. But I do not have to allow the fear and paranoia of diabetes complications to hang over my head like the Sword of Damocles and run my life. Yes, the risk of complications is real, but I cannot spend my days as if I were already afflicted with these complications. What was it that Benjamin Franklin said? “Many people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.” I have no desire to live that way.
Instead of ditching certain foods, I experimented with portion control, timing and food combinations. Exercise became an even more important part of my life. I have accepted that I would need medication, and that being medication-free was not the right goal for me to begin with. My A1c, though still in the 5% range, will never dip to 4%, but that’s ok. It has taken a lot of experimentation, testing and introspection to find that delicate balance between an acceptable BG level and my love for eating and drinking, and this is and will be an ongoing process. But that is all right, because I regained my energy, my interest and zest for life, and my old self back. I was happy again.
Two of my GP’s first instructions to me after my diagnosis was one, ditch sugar, and two, not to use sugar substitutes.
No sugar or gum syrup in my coffee and tea. No cookies, cakes or pies. I understood ditching sugar, but staying away from sugar substitutes as well? Were they harmful to my health? That wasn’t it. My GP’s reason was very simple – he wanted me to wean myself off sweets. If not, I will have a major long-term struggle adjusting to a life of diabetes. Sweets surround us, diabetic or not, everywhere we go. Whether I like it or not, I will be constantly tempted at dinners, parties, networking functions and other social events. I would be constantly tempted just by the sight of sugar. He knew how much I loved sweets. Whatever the reason, at that time, I was willing to do what my GP wanted.
Deal with sugar first. Piece of cake! But I underestimated my severe addiction to sweetness. The fact was I did not know how addicted I was to sugar. Like the great Hercule Poirot, I used to put 3 teaspoons of sugar in my coffee. I loaded my tea with gum syrup, and drowned my strawberries in condensed milk. I snacked on chocolates – except bitter, dark chocolate.
The following weeks were hellish. My experience must have been close to what Renton in Trainspotting went through. All right, that’s an exaggeration. But I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would rather run through the Sahara Desert in summer than cut out sugar.
Especially in my coffee. I drink coffee by the bucket and, as I said earlier, with a lot of sugar. How could anyone drink that bitter black liquid without any sweetener? Without my sweet coffee, I was the quintessence of meanness, spite, and cantankerous attitude. I was able to keep Ms. Hyde at bay in the office but not at home. My dear husband bore the brunt of it (I tell you, I’m nominating him for sainthood).
Then, one Sunday afternoon, while my husband and I were at one of our favorite restaurants, I asked for cappuccino. I spat out what they gave me because it was sweet. I complained to our server and explained to him that I was detoxing from sugar. He assured me that they do not put sugar in their cappuccino and that it’s the same recipe they used the last time I was there. I forcefully insisted it was sweet and that therefore they put sugar in it. My husband, who was obviously embarrassed by my allegation, intervened. He tasted my cappuccino and assured me that it harbored no sugar.
Unbelievable. My taste buds changed. Sweetness no longer had control over me (well, most of the time). I knew then, without doubt, that I can control my Type 2 diabetes.
I still want sweets sometimes, but I’ve not put sugar in my coffee or tea since, and I’ve developed a fondness for dark, dark chocolate.
No diabetes day is more memorable for me (apart from the day I was diagnosed) than the day (or night) I publicly declared “I am diabetic.”
Before that night, no one except my husband, my father and my brothers knew. If anyone noticed that I was no longer a sugar fiend and was leaving rice on my sushi plate, I say “I’m on a diet.” A few non-Japanese friends tried to convince me that I did not need to diet and that the Atkins diet was dangerous (ignoring my assurances that I was not on Atkins). But most people pretty much left me alone.
There was hardly any reason to mention my diabetes to anyone. Being in Tokyo, I do not find it all that challenging to eat. If I go to house parties and expect the host to serve only pasta, pizza and sugar-filled pies (and that has happened only maybe twice), I eat something at home and ask my husband to volunteer a dish. Luckily, my husband is a good cook, so everyone welcomes his contribution. Once at a small dinner party, my husband was asked to cook pasta sauce. We managed to fill my plate with shirataki “pasta” noodles. Hahahaha. No one knew. Aren’t I sneaky?
Eating out is also not a major issue. Almost all restaurants offer something that I can eat. With a few exceptions, the Japanese love their fish, meat and vegetables (not necessarily in that order) as much as they do rice and noodles. Hence, I never worried about going out with friends. That is, until friends decided to celebrate their anniversary at a pizzeria.
Had they selected an Italian restaurant, I would have been fine because there will always be non-pasta and non-pizza dishes I can order. But a pizza place? I did not expect to find anything but pizzas. To add to my worries, everyone was to share dishes. Consequently, before I signed up for the party, I asked whether there will be other food. Yup, pasta. Uh-oh! But one of them is Japanese, so of course salads, sausages and ham (as appetizers) were on the party menu. That was a relief.
At the party, they asked me why this sudden concern for food. Since it was their party and I chose to go, I thought they deserved an explanation. My husband nudged me to just tell them the truth. So, I did.
“I am diabetic.”
Silence. For a few seconds.
Then, our hostess said “Tell me what you can eat.” I had a large plate of appetizers to myself. ☺
My “coming out” was painless. She and the other guests asked me questions, the first of which was “Can we ask you questions?” They wanted to know what type of diabetes I have, whether I use insulin, what I can or cannot eat or drink, how I was doing and feeling, whether I have complications, how long I’ve had it and other things. They were all interested and concerned. Even those I have met that evening for the first time.
No one offered me “expert advice” on diabetes. No one tempted me with “Have a bite of pizza. It won’t hurt you.” No one asked me how I developed diabetes. No one told me stories of their friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s great granddaddy’s diabetes, kidney failure or foot amputation. I could not have chosen a better group to come out to.
“I am diabetic.”
I could not believe I actually said it to non-family members. It was a relief. It was liberating. It was life-changing. Finally, I had accepted my diabetes and was ready to face it head-on.
Now, about three years later, I’m openly writing about my experiences as a T2 diabetic. Who would have thought?
My husband and I very recently attended two Japanese matsuri (or festival): the Ome City Matsuri and the Tamagawa Genryuu Matsuri in Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture.
Like most, if not all, festivals in Japan, food and drinks played a central role in both festivals. After all, what good is a festival if it keeps you starving and thirsty?
Only very picky eaters will have nothing to eat or drink at a matsuri. But what about a diabetic who wants to keep his blood glucose under control, will he have to starve, bring his own food, or settle for a high BG? Nope. A diabetic will have no difficulty finding food that will not send his BG skyrocketing, unless he does not eat meat of any kind.
It is true that most festival food stalls sell high-carb offerings, such as:
- yaki soba (noodles)
- grilled corn
- okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake with various toppings)
- takoyaki (ball-shaped batter with octopus)
- choco banana (chocolate-covered banana)
- cotton candy
- jaga bata (potatoes with butter)
- kakigori (shaved ice with colored syrup)
- taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry with some kind of sweet filling)
- candy apples, strawberries and other fruits
I ignore them. Well, almost all of them. I sometimes enjoy a small portion of okonomiyaki (that is, I eat the toppings and little of the pancake, and I ask the vendor to put very little sauce), or one or two takoyaki balls. So, what do I eat? Well, plenty.
Japanese festivals are very kind to meat lovers. Among the choices you have are:
- yakitori (grilled chicken parts on stick)
- ikayaki (grilled squid)
- karaage (fried chicken)
- grilled fish
- hotateyaki (scallops grilled in butter)
- sausages and frankfurters
There’s kebab which seems to have increased in popularity over these past few years (I leave the bread untouched). If, like me, you like soup, you can find (during the colder seasons) oden (which consists of various ingredients in soy-flavored broth) and miso tonjiru (miso soup with pork and vegetables). If you are not
squirmish squeamish, you can try buta motsu nikomi (simmered pork innards or intestines and vegetables), which I thoroughly enjoyed at the Kosuge festival.
If you are vegetarian, you can always find cucumbers which are widely sold, especially in summer.
See? Japanese festivals offer a lot of delicious diabetic-friendly food. I have never ever left a Japanese festival hungry.
What about drinks? Water and an assortment of teas (by this, I mean unsweetened teas) are always on sale. But alcoholic drinks are a different matter. Beer, in almost limitless supply, is the most popular alcoholic beverage in festivals. You can also find sake but, like beer, it is not low carb. The possible low carb choices are happoshu, a low malt beer, and chu hi, a combination of fizzy lemon or grapefruit juice and shochu. But be careful with chu hi because, depending on which brand and type you pick up, it may not be as low in carbohydrates as you would like it to be. As someone who does not add sugar to her beverages, I find chu hi too sweet for my taste. Do not expect to find whiskey, gin, vodka or good quality shochu. I know because I looked. As I happen not to enjoy happoshu or chu hi, if I want to imbibe, I settle for sake, which I drink slowly and alternate with water or tea. I get the buzz without getting smashed.
So, the next time you stumble upon a Japanese festival, do not despair when you see all the flour- and sugar-based offerings, because you know you will find something suitable.
Enjoy your matsuri.