Barley used to be a main staple in these islands along with sweet potatoes, and wheat supplemented them throughout the year. From farm fields to storage spaces, life revolved around these food items. I grew barley and wheat last year in order to learn the cycle of a year. It was just a small amount each, and yet it led me to another interesting journey.
Together with a friend, I sowed seeds in the late Fall. Despite some damage by crows plucking the sprouts early on, they mostly grew on their own while we were busy and paid little attention. We harvested them in the early summer. Barley first, then wheat after a couple of weeks. Pretty easy!
Challenges came after the harvest. The crop was so small in quantity that we couldn’t use a machine to thresh. That was okay, we wanted to try it in the old way by hand anyways. Having had little knowledge or tools, I asked around and got some advice and an old foot-powered thresher. They said it didn’t work well with barley, but was fine for wheat. Barley grains adhere to the head much more stubbornly than wheat. But this was our only tool, so we ran the barley through it. It tore the heads off the stalks. We then beat the heads to force the grains off them, removed the empty heads and stalks by hand, and had wind blow the husks. After repeating these steps several times, we finally started seeing the bare grains. What a process! Wheat, on the other hand, was much easier. The thresher got most of the berries off and winnowing made it nearly perfect.
The rainy season put the project on hold for a month or so. When the sun came out again we spread the grains to dry. Finally, we could move on to cooking and eating, except that cooking also required quite a bit of work. Barley would be eaten cooked and served in a bowl just like rice today. It has to be polished before cooking, which was a big chore. The first polishing was often done by another foot-powered device — grains in a big wooden or stone mortar were beaten with a big wooden pounder that has a couple-meter long handle. Pounding would be done in a see-saw like mechanism. Women or girls with babies on their back (for weight) would step on the end of the handle to lift the pounder and then drop it. This did the first rough polishing of a few kilos of barley at once, then the second and more thorough polishing was done by hand with a smaller set before cooking each day. Both times, a small amount of water was added to help the grains rub against each other better. I tried with a Japanese kitchen mortar and pestle. Wrong tools, but that was all I had. My hands had no idea what they should feel or how much water would be appropriate, but after a while the skin of the grains softened and started to peel off.
I had heard many times that you had to cook barley twice to get it soft enough to eat. But my friends in their 70s and 80s didn’t remember further details of the cooking part. In the time when barley was eaten daily, cooking was mostly done by a generation older than them while they were out working in the fields all day. So I was sent to 98 year-old Tsuyo san. She kindly taught me how to cook it, but only verbally. I had to do the actual cooking on my own. I ended up cooking it for a long time instead of dividing it into two or three (I am guessing that they did so to save firewood). It seems like mine was not polished and cooked enough and turned out crumbly and chewy. It should be very soft and mushy. Back in the day, soft, smooth, or white were the desired adjectives for good food. Tsuyo san said if you had a little white rice (a luxurious food) to cook with barley, it made it more sticky and “so delicious”. I liked the texture of my boiled barley, but it’s probably because I live in a time where I can eat rice everyday.
To make wheat flour, you just have to grind it. The millstone we had recovered came into play. We poured grains into the hole and started grinding. Cracked wheat came out. Sift it, grind again, sift again…we repeated it four times and we finally got coarse whole wheat flour. It took three of us a few hours to grind 2 kilos of wheat. In a typical traditional house, until a few decades ago, a millstone would sit at the corner of doma kitchen and women would turn it whenever they had extra time. It was a hard work but rewarded them with a vital ingredients for special treats like dango. We’ve been enjoying the flavour of this very local flour in chapati, bread, cookies and biscuits. I plan on visiting Oshima with this and making dumpling soup with my older friends sometime soon.
This barley & wheat journey taught me again just how much time and work were involved in the act of eating. In that time and work, uncountable scenes, conversations and feelings are packed. It allowed me to have a glance at the images that my older friends might have in their minds when they tell me their stories. Their food not only made their bodies resilient but also their hearts kind and generous. You are what you eat, indeed.