Rice is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s tasty and there are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from. Some varieties have more nutrients, and some varieties have interesting colors, such as black, purple, and even red. But in my opinion, rice is a bit overrated. It is very expensive in Japan, and it isn’t even that healthy when compared to other grains. It has very little fiber and protein. However it still remains the main staple of Japan, with most people eating it at least once a day, if not with every meal.
Wheat is also a grain that has gained much popularity since the end of World War II, but even bread has more calories than rice does in many cases (unless it’s highly refined white bread, but we don’t talk about that one).
However, there is one more grain that rarely gets any attention, and its nutritional value and overall usage is greatly overlooked in Japanese cuisine. That grain is barley. Barley kind of looks like a cross between oatmeal and rice, and cooks much the same way that rice does. Some people mix small amounts of it into their rice for a more diverse flavor profile, but rarely do people eat just barley. 100 grams of barley has 13 grams of protein and 17 grams of fiber. It is much better than rice, which has only about half the protein and barely any fiber in the same quantity.
Not only can barley be eaten as is, but it is also used in a number of different foods. Barley tea is one of the most popular teas in Japan, and barley is also used to make miso paste, certain Japanese sakes, and it is even used to make beer. Barley is not only nutrient dense and flexible as an ingredient, but it is also usually much cheaper. It can be 50-100% cheaper.
You won’t see big aisles of bags of barley like you do rice in supermarkets. In fact, barley usually blends in with the rice, and is usually at the end of a rice aisle, with very few options. There are many varieties of barley in Japan, but I hardly noticed its existence for the first 3 years I lived in Japan! This food definitely deserves to be more well-known than it is currently.