Living in Japan means enjoying the food! It is delicious, healthy and . . . not always Japanese. Here's what it's all about.
What Is Mugi Gohan?
Mugi gohan is a Japanese rice dish. In English, it literally translates to "barley rice."
Simply put, mugi gohan is a mix of barley and white rice. These grains are cooked together in the rice cooker. This mix is served as you see in the picture above. It's brainless, and that's what makes it awesome.
The locals who eat it today do so for its health benefits. However, this wasn't always the case. In the past, mugi gohan was about necessity. In ancient Japan, white rice was more expensive than other grains. It was reserved for nobles, wealthy merchants, and samurai.
Japanese peasants and laborers could not afford as much white rice so they mixed it with other grains—including barley. While the upper classes might have seen this as "contamination," it actually gave the poor the edge in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The wealthy had to get these nutrients from side dishes.
Over the years, rice has emerged as the staple in the Japanese diet. Thanks to modern technology, rice is easier to grow, transport, and store. Mugi gohan has since faded into history. Most people remember its stigma but seem to have forgotten its health benefits . . . until now.
Is It Healthy?
Is mugi gohan healthy? Absolutely. Let's look at the barley first.
As a grain, barley has a significant amount of fiber. However, most of barley's fiber is soluble. This is unusual for a grain. Soluble fiber is important because it offers a variety of health benefits such as lowering cholesterol, lowering risk of heart disease and improving gut health.
Also, barley's fiber can be found throughout the kernel, inside and out. The fiber of most other grains, including rice and wheat, is on the outside. This means almost all the fiber lost when these grain are milled. Even after barley is milled, it keeps nearly all of its fiber.
Compared to other grains, barley also has high levels of protein, vitamins and minerals. Some of these include thiamine (B1), niacin (B3), magnesium and selenium. White rice is notorious for its deficiency in B vitamins. This can lead to beriberi, a crippling neurological disease.
Remember, mugi gohan is a mix of white rice and barley. Most versions contain more white rice than barley. A person can probably do better with barley alone. But barley alone doesn't help anyone if nobody eats it. By adding white rice, more Japanese people will eat more barley more often.
An overlooked advantage with this rice dish is its simplicity. They simply add barley to the rice that they cook anyway. The ratio varies but we use 3:1 (that's three parts rice to one part barley). Since many Japanese people eat rice three times a day, this dish ensures that they get a healthy dose of whole grain at each meal.
That's the power of mugi gohan. It's an easy, daily habit that improves health over the long term.
How Does It Taste?
So, how does mugi gohan taste? It isn't much different from white rice. I've heard others say that—on its own—barley has a mild, slightly nutty taste. In this rice dish, this is almost impossible to pick up. Even at a 1:1 ratio, it's hard to detect.
Texture is what makes this dish so special. The barley makes it chewy, but the rice makes it soft. It still goes well with many Japanese dishes that the locals enjoy with plain, white rice.
Is It Popular?
I've lived in Japan for years but have never heard of mugi gohan before my girlfriend told me about it. My girlfriend only recently heard about it on a morning news show, and we gave it a try. Once we did, we were sold. We have it almost every night instead of white rice.
With its taste and health benefits, why isn't this dish more popular? Ironically, these days, it's the price of barley that keeps mugi gohan down. Rice is grown by more farmers in Japan, and it is more heavily subsidized. Fewer companies are interested in barley or barley-based foods.
Now, Japanese people love to mix things up with their rice. Examples include takikomi gohan or chaahan. However, unlike mugi gohan, these rice dishes aren't served daily at every meal.
So, again, mugi gohan takes the back seat. It remains an ancient Japanese secret to health—even to today's Japanese people.
Of course, there's more to do with barley than mix it with rice. If mugi gohan gets boring, try the recipe below.
Mugi Gohan: Things to Remember
- Mugi gohan means more fiber. Be careful: a sudden increase in fiber can lead to gas or cramping. Take it slow! A ratio of 3 white rice to 1 barley is a good place to start.
- This dish isn't a silver bullet. Be sure you eat a variety of healthy foods throughout the day.
- Cooking this dish in the rice cooker is easy and delicious. However, the pot inside can get sticky afterwards compared to cooking white rice alone. Don't worry, it's just as easy to clean.
- The barley we use is from the Hakubaku company. Hakubaku insists that its strain of barley is better than others. It is specially bred for its taste and health benefits. Is that true?