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Oct 31, 2007 12:15 AM

Tokyo with peanut and soy allergies. PLEASE HELP!!

My husband, our two daughters and I are planning to visit Tokyo next Spring. Here’s the problem: my daughters are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and legumes (legumes include soy protein such as edamame, tofu and miso and many types of beans, peas, and lentils). They carry Epi-pens and wear Medic Alert bracelets. They are ages 14 and 12.

As you can imagine, their food allergies make life very complicated. We are very careful about what they eat and where they eat. We are always reading food labels.

We are familiar with most common Japanese foods and frequently eat in many local Japanese restaurants near our home in the San Francisco area. But I am very worried about visiting Japan because I'm not sure whether the food will be made differently than it is here. I’m not sure which foods may have hidden soy protein or nuts. Someone recently told me to avoid curry houses in Tokyo, because almost all the curry recipes use peanuts -- I did not know that. I was grateful for that information. That is the type of information I need to know.

My daughters CAN eat soy sauce and teriyaki sauce, because the protein is removed in the fermenting process. So, they do eat many Asian foods here in California. They love sushi. In Tokyo, they would like to try Ramen noodles (for example), but I’m not sure if they are made in a broth containing miso or soy protein. I’m worried about meats that may be marinated in miso, or noodles made of beans they are allergic to.

I’m also not sure how the Japanese food served in Japan would be different from similar foods served here in the USA. From my travel experience, foods are sometimes made with different ingredients in the indigenous country because the available ingredients are different.

Obviously we will be dealing with a language barrier in Japan. I plan to have a card made which translates the allergy information into Japanese (to show at restaurants), but I am still worried that people may not truly understand what it means. I am also worried that waitresses may smile and nod and not really talk to the chef -- not truly understanding the importance of the situation -- that this is not a preference or an annoyance -- this is LIFE AND DEATH for my children!

I would hate to take them to Japan and have them eating at American chain restuarants like McDonalds. Can you help me identify potentially “safe” types of restaurants and foods for them in Tokyo? Or what types of foods or restaurants to stay away from?

I REALLY appreciate any assistance you can offer. In addition to Tokyo, we hope to visit Kyoto for a day or two.

Thank you so very much!

-a Mom in California

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  1. With such extensive restrictions and the fact you are dealing with children, compounded by the language difference, I strongly recommend you contact a professional translator to draft something for you. And you might want to see if there are medical associations in Japan that provide guidance for avoiding foods your daughters are allergic to. I've also heard that some tourist agencies offer volunteer translator/guides.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      I agree about getting a detailed, professional translation...
      You will do OK with a lot of Japanese food since your girls can have soy sauce. There's loads of good sushi--check out Tsukiji fish market and then have some sushi nearby. Ramen is OK if you specify shoyu ramen (made with soy sauce, not miso). Instead of miso soup, a lot of places may offer suimono (clear soup)--just ask for no tofu, etc. Japanese pizza is funky, and there are no peanuts in sight. The toppings can be tame (the usual Italian ones) or funky--octapus, egg, tuna and mayo... I really enjoyed it once in a while. Tempura should be fine too--you can choose the veggies, etc. Udon soups are also OK--soy sauce in broth and usually no tofu or anything. Stay away from Chinese food places--a lot of nuts and things. Check out the ground floors of department stores--lots of cool food and a lot of "safe" items. Hope this helps! Have a great trip.

      1. re: foodslut

        Can't agree more with FS. In the Ginza area across the road from the kabuki theatre is a great pizza restaurant called 'To the Herbs', the restaurant is upstairs and if you ask for non-smoking you are seated in this great area with a window view of the Ginza in all its glory. I know you dont go to Japan to eat Western food but it is an experience and a great location. The fish market is also a must and the food stalls surrounding the area with the freshest sushi, also if you go to Asakusa there are lots of fun food stalls cooking the food before your eyes. For another totally different experience try Omotesando-dori, Tokyos Champs Elysees and enjoy sunday brunch at Le Papillon de Paris-one of Tokyos best french restaurants. If the budget doesn't stretch to that there is a very 'elegant' Maccas-looks more like a french cafe where you can sit back and people watch-there is plenty to see!!

    2. >I am still worried that people may not truly understand what it means. I am also worried that waitresses may smile and nod and not really talk to the chef -- not truly understanding the importance of the situation

      Yes, this is exactly what will happen, no matter how professionally translated your note is and how much you insist.

      Restaurants in Japan aren't as conscious of food allergies and dietary restrictions as they might be someplace like San Francisco. I'm trying to imagine how a typical waiter or restaurant manager would deal with a group of non-Japanese-speaking customers coming in with a detailed note explaining their food allergies, even a note from a professional translator, and I'm not imagining a very successful encounter.

      Even if they take the time to have a detailed discussion with the chefs (which is unlikely to begin with in a busy restaurant kitchen), I don't think there's any way the waiter or manager can totally guarantee that there's no peanut oil or miso or other bean by-product in any of the ingredients in any of your dishes, or in any of the cooking pans or utensils that it's touched. Japanese restaurants simply aren't equipped to deal with severe food allergies, and people in Japan with those conditions don't go out to random restaurants hoping for the best, they cook for themselves.

      It might be a little less risky if you stick to restaurants in first-class international hotels and you contact them well ahead of time to explain your dietary restrictions.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Robb S

        Very valid points, Rob, but I think they have been forced to become much more conscious lately since a lot of Japanese kids also have various food allergies. I taught there for two years and a lot of my students had allergy issues. Smaller restaurants may actually be more cooperative with dietary restrictions. Also, in two years in Japan, I never ate anything that contained peanuts. They are not typically used in traditional cooking.

        1. re: foodslut

          Yes, chopped or whole peanuts are not found in Japanese cuisine, but as Robb mentioned, peanut oil should be a concern as it MAY be used for fried foods like Japanese fried chicken (kara age) or different "katsu" dishes and perhaps even tempura. Powdered peanuts can be used for confections and pastries. Also, many restaurants offer southeast Asian dishes these days as part of their menu.

          As I think Robb also alluded to, restaurant front staff in Japan tend to be "baito" young part-timers who are rather clueless. A non-Japanese speaking gaijin family with children and a lengthy note is going to be tough. One more strategy I thought of, which perhaps the OP is already a practitioner of is avoiding busy times to dine. In Japan, going close to opening for dinner and lunch would give everyone a bit more breathing room to attend to allergy concerns.

      2. Hey CA Mom,

        I am a Japanese food junky and chef and I have been to Japan several times over the years, stayed 2-3 months at a time. The first time I went was in "88" and I didn't eat raw fish then. I still found lot's of good things to eat. Although I don't have food allergies, I studied Japanese cooking. Tokyo especially has become so Westernized, I wouldn't worry. Just don't eat at the quaint little noodle house in the corner with the old guy cooking with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth kinda place. Very authentic cooking, but that guy doesn't care about food allergies.

        Japan has such a wide variety of places to eat. The sushi is so fresh and you can stop at a small corner stand, just like fast food and get a Tekka Maki roll (tuna roll)to go. There are Indian restaurants, Italian,pizza, French,Mexican and by the way, Mc Donalds taste like heaven in Japan. I am not quite sure what they do differently but doesn't taste like here. You must try it at least once, just make sure they don't use different oils there.

        Stay away from curry "period" anyway because most curry has msg. in it, unless made fresh. Yes, Japanese cooking has mostly peanut oils and soy so you should be careful, even tempura is usually deep fried in a mixure of oils. So, watch out for deep fried stuff. Most of the salad dressings have peanut or sesame oils or both. Teryaki salmon,chicken or beef is usually a good choice as long as it's grilled. How about Seasame oil? They use lot's of seeds and oil from sesame in cooking. Be careful with ramen is my suggestion, even Shoyu (soy sauce) ramen. A lot of noodle houses add toppings and flavored oil to soup base.

        You will be suprised at all the English speaking Japanese people. You will love Kyoto, it's sort of the Japanese Bel Air along with Ginza in Tokyo. Sticking to fresh vegies, fruits and sushi are a safe bet.

        Good luck and happy dinning!

        Dominique Rooney: Chef.Food Critic.Mother.Blogger.Fashion Diva

        1. Quote: "this is LIFE AND DEATH for my children!"
          If that is the case you had probably best ignore much of the advice in this thread. A translated note is no guarantee. I see no evidence of any special awareness of food allergies here. Soybean oil is the most used oil in Japanese kitchens, though sesame oil is used as a flavoring and is mixed in the frying oil, and olive oil is used in many Western style restaurants. It is as Robb said they will smile and nod and god help you. Last I checked the Golden Arches here did not taste like anything like my idea of heaven but I think it's a safe bet. Good luck, hope your trip goes safely.

          1 Reply
          1. re: steamer

            If it's "LIFE and DEATH" for the children I would suggest not putting them at risk at all. If concern of eating in a foreign country is this "SERIOUS", with all the allergies and as a mother myself I would re consider eating at any restaurant in Japan and stick to what you know. And believe me, after 3 months of Japanese food "Mickey D's in Japan is HEAVEN" and tastes completely different than the US. Re: Smiling and Nodding, it's funny I have a different experience when asking for help during my several trips to Japan. As long as I went through the appropriate channels...notes, doctors notes, finding an english speaking person, which is not hard to do...i never had a problem communicating my needs. Good luck Mom!

          2. California mom,
            I'm sorry to say but i'm inclined to agree with the more pessismistic responses to your post. I've been lucky enough to travel a bit in japan, a pleasant portion of which was spent in the company of a strict vegan, whose dietary considerations i explained to the staff in japanese, yet we were still presented with dishes that she could not eat, simply because the restuarant generally wasn't as aware of and considerate to dining allergies and preferences as they might be in the states, and i fear that you'd have the same experience, even in tokyo. even with the note, i'd still be extremely cautious in terms of intake that might be harmful. with that in mind, i know that there's still tons of great food for you to enjoy there, i hope you find a way to get to it.