So I’ve been living in Japan for almost a year and if there is one thing that I absolutely have not eaten in the past eight months it’s…
Yep. Rice. The main product of the Land of the Rising Sun and the literal word for meal in the Japanese phrase for ‘Have you eaten, yet?’ is, to put it mildly, my mortal enemy. To make matters even more complicated, the frequency and subsequent severity of the symptoms only started four years ago. It has since become crippling in a country where rice is eaten on the regular, three times a day, every day.
This post is for the rice allergic/intolerant people of the world, we (seemingly) few who must live out our days scourging the aisles of the Lawson’s for bread that does not contain rice flour and who must inform all well-meaning hosts that we cannot in fact attend the dinner in our honor if rice is on our plate (everyone else should be fine).
“But you’re, like, (insert mixed ancestry here). Every time I go over to my Mexican friends’ houses they always seem to have Mexican rice for dinner.” -Friend A
Mexican culture has sadly been reduced to Taco Bell and whatever happens to be on the home menu depending on when guests come over (rice is cheap and filling… and deadly to my internal organs, sadly). Also, just because something happens to be ethnic food or commonly eaten in a given culture, doesn’t mean that people born and raised in said culture can’t be allergic to that food. Rice, admittedly, has a very low allergen report rate compared to peanuts and other well-documented food allergies.
“Here, just try a little bit. This onigiri was made using only the best of premium Japanese rice, the kind that only rich people can afford and that poor folk dream about; organically grown and straight from my wife’s family’s farm from the one prefecture in this entire country where it is said the rice is the most delicious. Oh and they only use fresh mountain river water to flood the fields. You can’t be allergic to this.” -Coworker B
I can and I am. Okay so maybe I took some creative liberty with the wording about the mountain river water (although according to my super, whom I asked, it was true about the rich people can only afford thing and that there is a designated prefecture that can claim to have the best rice. Congrats to Niigata).
But in all in all I only try to highlight a handful of experiences that I’ve had. But trust me it’s not going to get any easier explaining time and again that yes, your lunch sans rice is more than filling enough, and that, no, you’re really quite very much sure at this point that premium rice from Niigata will cause you the same reactions as rice from Hokkaido.
What does rice allergy/intolerance look like? Everyone, of course, is different. For example, I know of people who can eat rice just fine but as soon as summer rolls around they must resort to wearing masks for fear of rice pollen entering their nostrils and thus bringing about a very near death sentence. Or maybe eating the rice and inhaling the rice pollen are just fine but harvest season is a veritable inferno because you’re allergic to the rice stalks that are burned throughout October and November.
I’m of the ‘pollen and burning stalks are fine but I can’t eat it’ variety. If you, like me, experience stomach pains, loss of digestive capabilities, and/or throw up the contents of your stomach with each bowl of rice… then congratulations, you may have rice allergy/intolerance! Now on to the stuff that will help save your life and/or cope with not being able to eat 90% of what is produced in Japan.
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT LIVING IN JAPAN WITH A RICE ALLERGY
1. Rice flour can be in anything. They put it in bread and other things that you wouldn’t traditionally think of as having rice. You’ll have to learn the kanji for rice and its onyomi and kunyomi derivatives just to be on the safe side: kome, ine, meshi, gohan, and mama (this last one is in Nanbu-ben).
2. Senbei is rice. It’s puffed rice that doesn’t look like rice but it’s still rice. And it shows up at drinking parties 100% of the time. Dango is rice. Mochi is also rice. Manju is rice.
3. Rice is rice. You may not need reminding but your coworkers will try to helpfully point out that maybe if only you cooked oats with your rice that your stomach will start to digest it properly or that maybe you just need to eat the higher grade stuff. Nope.
4. School lunch will always have rice. If you can get by on eating kyushoku with just the side dishes then you’re golden. I formally withdrew from the school lunch system eight months ago and it has made life easier but there are other options.
5. Restaurants price food rigidly. You will not be paying less or getting more of something else to compensate for the fact that you’ll be orderimg the tempura without the rice. Makes for interesting meal combinations, though.
6. There is no whole wheat bread. If your body can’t handle white bread either then you’re running on slim options. Bread making is quite the industry in Japan and a slew of electronic companies have impressive lines of bread making machines on the market. If you can find a reliable purveyor of whole wheat flour (expensive, but not unbudgetable) then that will create more variety in your diet.
7. Learn your symptoms, if you don’t know them already. Some allergies manifest later in life or suddenly worsen.
8. You’ll have to get used to smiling and pointing out in a soft and unobtrusive voice that you’re really, really sorry but you can’t eat what’s on your plate because you may possibly die and/or suffer physical pain.
9. Make sure your allergy is known early on. I was in denial at first. Lessons were learned the hard way.
10. Make everyone else feel comfortable eating rice and remind coworkers that you don’t really need omiyage or that you’re more than happy to hear their travel stories in lieu of a gift. More on omiyage later, but for now let’s just call them souvenirs. One colleague surprised the office with funny and interesting postcards from Niigata because apparently Niigata = Rice Eaters Only and he didn’t want me to feel left out. I’m forever grateful to him and for his thoughtfulness (cries tears of gratitude)
11. Compile a list of doctors and hospitals, their phone numbers, and have all this information stored on your phone for easy access. Keep in mind that inaka clinic hours are different than city hours and English speakers are RARE here. The hospital in my town can only afford to keep its clinic running in the morning and does not admit anyone in the afternoon unless it’s quite clear that said person is dying on them. And even then…
12. Make sure you have emergency contacts and their information on hand. Basics but worth mentioning especially if it’s your first time experiencing a late onset allergy/intolerance as an adult.
You may even find yourself loving rice but being unable to eat it. I love dango. And mochi. And senbei. I think they taste amazing and what wouldn’t I give to be able to eat them like everyone else. Best thing is not to be in denial, get the tests, make the changes, and just look back fondly on your days with rice as enka worthy bittersweet memories.