Barley (Jau in Nepali) may be Nepal’s most important crop culturally, but is being consumed less food these days.
From babyhood when our mothers fed us barley water during illness to drinking scotch in adulthood, barley has stood us in good stead. In many villages in the Himalayan region, instant noodles have replaced tsampa (roasted barley) as a staple diet, chiefly due to ease of preparation. This is unfortunate because the health benefits of barley are numerous.
It is a rich source of B vitamins and micronutrients, eases bowel movement, and also helps regulate blood glucose levels. There is also some evidence that consuming barley over a long period may help to decrease blood cholesterol.
The only downside is that like wheat and rye, barley contains gluten which makes it an unsuitable grain for consumption by those with Coeliac disease.
A recent article in the journal Science has shown that barley may be the reason why human habitation was possible in places as high as 4700m on the Tibetan plateau. Unlike other grains like rice and wheat, barley grows more easily than in these higher altitude areas.
The article co-authored by Chen Fahu and Dong Guanghui from Lanzhou University in China suggested that even when the climatic conditions became colder, it was possible to grow barley at high altitude in Tibet. Paleontological data (data from fossils) shows that humans have been living at high altitude in the Tibetan plateau since about 20,000 years ago. (This is in sharp contrast to high altitude human habitation in South America which is estimated to be about 6000 years old.)
After examining 53 sites in the north east part of the Tibetan plateau, what became clear to investigators Chen and Dong was that human settlement did not happen above 3000m for a long time. People did go up to higher altitude areas (above 3000m) in search of game such as goats, sheep, ass, and yaks, but no one settled permanently in these higher reaches.
It was only after the Tibetans started growing barley that settlement became possible. Barley arrived in Tibet by way of the Middle East around 3600 years ago where this grain had already brought about a farming revolution. In fact the Chinese study revealed almost a crucial contour line in these 53 sites designated by the kind of crop that was grown. Those above a certain contour line are dominated by barley and below that line is dominated by millet.
Many of us who have trekked in the Everest region know that at altitudes as high as 4300m (in Dingboche on the route to Everest), we can see both buckwheat (Phapar) and barley growing. But higher up, if grain plantation was carried out, it is only barley that grows successfully.
With its ability to grow in high altitude, under extreme weather conditions and the range of nutritional benefits it possesses, barley is a valuable crop that will continue to provide both physical and spiritual sustenance to the people of the Himalaya.