The Staff of Life

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As the twenty-first century began, the US Dietary Guidelines accompanying the Food Guide Pyramid called upon Americans to “use plant foods as the foundation of your meals”:


There are many ways to create a healthy eating pattern, but they all start with the three food groups at the base of the Pyramid: grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating a variety of grains (especially whole grain foods), fruits, and vegetables is the basis of healthy eating. Enjoy meals that have rice, pasta, tortillas, or whole grain bread as the center of the plate . . . Eating plenty of whole grains, such as whole grain bread or oatmeal, as part of the healthful eating patterns described by these guidelines, may help protect you against many chronic diseases.[1]


A Joyous, Peaceful Way of Eating

Ki refers to the natural electromagnetic energy of heaven and earth that manifests in all things. It is also called life energy, cosmic energy, or the vital force. In human beings, ki flows through the meridians, chakras, organs, tissues, and cells and carries vitality and consciousness. In China it is known as qi, in India as prana, in Judaism as ruach, in Christianity as the Holy Spirit, in Islam as baraka, and in Jungian psychology as synchronicity.


In the Far East, the ideogram for ki is made of characters for the steam or energy arising from cooking millet, rice, or other grain. The word for “health” in Japanese is genki—good ki. Originally, it was known that good or strong ki energy arose from eating a plant-based diet centered on cooked whole cereal grains. Sickness or bad ki—known as byoki—results from poor cooking and imbalanced eating. Our daily foods create our minds, bodies, and spirits. Through the art of cooking and proper eating, we distill and absorb the condensed energy and vibration of heaven and earth. Our life becomes joyful and naturally unfolds in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

Another fundamental concept is wa, the word for peace and harmony. It consists of the ideograms for “grain” and “mouth.” Ancient people knew that eating brown rice, millet, or other whole grains as the principal food led to day-to-day good physical health and vitality; a calm, clear mind; and sound judgment. A grain-centered diet formed the foundation of a long, happy life.


In the West, the same principles are enshrined in Isaiah’s admonition to beat swords into plowshares. The ancient Hebrew prophet knew that the secret of a just, enduring peace was to turn weapons of war into peaceful farming implements to grow grains, vegetables, and other crops. In the Odyssey, the Greek poet Homer relates how Odysseus’ long journey home will finally end when he transforms his battle oar into a winnowing shovel—a tool to thresh barley and wheat. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer prevails on God to “give us this day our daily bread” and bless us to avoid temptations (extremes of yin and yang) and forgive others.


In our own era, the government’s Food Guide Pyramid and MyPlate—with whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit, and other plant foods as the foundation of a healthful diet—replaced the Basic Four food groups consisting of 50 percent meat, poultry, and dairy food. Over the last several decades, the rates of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases have fallen following this nutritional axis shift.  In the twenty-first century, a healthy, plant-based way of eating is rapidly spreading worldwide. The United Nations warns that the modern food and agriculture system, especially cattle production, is the main cause of global warming, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, and other environmental destruction. It is clear that animal-foods consumption today, even if organic quality is unsustainable.


The key to health, happiness, and peace is preparing balanced, artistic meals from high quality and whole or traditionally processed foods. Food is not only energy; it is also spirit. Cooking with gratitude, consciously putting our love and energy in the food we cook, and blessing the meal to the health of our family, community, or planet is one of the most important aspects of the art of cooking. These considerations do not usually appear on the ingredient lists or step-by-step instructions in a cookbook. But for optimal health, vitality, and the realization of our common dream in life, they are essential. In these pages, we will offer inspiring quotes, and techniques to enhance the power, energy, and beauty of the food you prepare; nourish your heart and soul; and create joyous harmony and balance.


Perfect Rice

“The simplest dishes are the hardest to make. The highest art in cooking is the preparation of a bowl of rice.”

—Michio Kushi


The popularity of brown rice, the iconic macrobiotic food, has spread around the world. It is served in homes, schools, restaurants, hospitals, prisons, stadiums, and other institutions and venues. The medical profession has touted its benefits to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, and MyPlate recommends it as one of the whole grains to be eaten daily. NASA has even included brown rice in its menu for astronauts on the International Space Station.


High in nutrients, brown rice retains the bran, endosperm, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals in the outer layers of the kernel that are removed in milling white rice. It is also high in ki energy and gives strong physical vitality, emotional equilibrium, and a calm, peaceful mind. Unlike wheat, barley, and other grains, rice does not have a line or crease in the middle. Its whole form and structure, representing the evolutionarily most advanced grain, further contributes to its spiritual vibration and energy and unifying qualities.


The most widely consumed food on the planet, rice has been a staple from time immemorial. It is hulled, milled, or processed into dozens of products, including sake, amazake, rice vinegar, rice cakes, and rice syrup, making it also the world’s most versatile crop. The plant dates back to Pangaea, the primeval landmass that separated into two supercontinents. About twenty to thirty million years ago, northern and southern varieties of rice evolved separately in Asia and Africa. Until recently, wild rice in North America was considered an unrelated annual grass. But recent genetic research found that it is closely related to Asian rice, diverging from a common ancestor only about one million years ago.


Rice also has a rich cultural and social history. Prince Siddhartha ate rice under a tree and became the Buddha, or Enlightened One. Lao-tzu, Confucius, Ashoka, and Gandhi sang its praises. Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Thomas Jefferson delighted in it. When he was ill, Charles Darwin recuperated on it. Rice has played a pivotal role in world history, serving as the principal food for many ancient civilizations. In the Middle Ages, it came to Europe over the fabled Silk Road and contributed to the flourishing of the Renaissance. By way of Arabia and the Moors, rice influenced Spanish, French, Italian, and other Mediterranean cultures. In pre-Columbian America, native peoples enjoyed wild rice from the Great Lakes to Appalachia. In colonial times, rice formed the economic foundation of slavery in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia for several centuries before it was displaced by cotton. Many of the enslaved Africans, probably including Martin Luther King Jr,’s ancestors, were rice farmers in West Africa. The modern macrobiotic community popularized brown rice in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and it has now become a staple of planetary cuisine.


Rice retains its vitality almost indefinitely, and there are documented instances of rice sprouting after thousands of years. Several years ago, we experimented with rice propagated from seeds unearthed in an ancient tomb in Japan. This hardy, dry land rice comes in many hues and has strong, unifying energy. Dry land and paddy irrigation varieties are now being grown abundantly in the Northeast, Midwest, and other regions where rice has not been grown before.


Besides supporting personal health, rice contributes to planetary health and well-being. Rice fields constitute the single largest sanctuary for wildlife in the world. Hundreds of species of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and little fish live in rice fields. In the Sacramento Valley of California, site of the most organic rice production in the country, one-quarter of all migrating geese, ducks, and other waterfowl set down in the rice fields to glean grains left from the harvest. Monarch butterflies, bees, and other threatened insects also thrive in rice fields.


Rice Varieties

Among cereal grains, brown rice is the most balanced. Its size, shape, color, texture, and proportion of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and minerals fall in the middle of the spectrum of the seven principal grains. Rice is biologically the most integrated grain—our evolutionary counterpart in the plant world.”

—Aveline Kushi


Rice is classified into short, medium, and long grain. Short-grain rice is smaller, rounder, and hardier than the other varieties. It is the most popular type used in the modern macrobiotic community. Sweet brown rice is a glutinous type of short-grain rice used to make mochi and ohagi. Medium-grain rice is slightly softer, lighter, and less sweet than short-grain rice. It is traditionally used in warmer climates or seasons, makes delicious fried rice, and is used in Italian risotto and Spanish arròs negre. Long-grain rice is the staple in warmer regions and the tropics and cooks up lighter and fluffier than other varieties. Basmati rice is an aromatic type of long-grain rice from Pakistan and India, while jasmine rice, another fragrant variety, comes from Thailand, Vietnam, and other regions of Southeast Asia.


Most American macrobiotic households prepare organically grown short-grain or medium-grain occasionally alternate or combine it with long-grain rice or basmati in warmer seasons. There are also several exotic rices that can be used from time to time, such as black rice and red rice grown. And while white rice is best avoided on a regular basis, now and then it makes for a nice, light accompaniment to the meal.


Organic rice is now widely available in natural foods stores and in many supermarkets. It is best stored in closed glass jars to prevent infestation by insects or rodents. Rice is also susceptible to going bad at high temperatures; therefore, store rice in a dark, cool place.


Whole Grains: Millet, Barley, Quinoa, and Others

“As the farmer casts into the ground the finest ears of his grain, the time will come when we too shall hold nothing back, but shall eagerly convert more than we now possess into means and powers, when we shall be willing to sow the sun and the moon for seeds.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Man the Reformer

Besides brown rice, there are many other whole grains that are a healthy, energizing part of a balanced diet. We serve millet and barley regularly, by themselves or combined with other grains, beans, or vegetables, and as ingredients in soups, stews, baked goods, snacks, or desserts. Several times a week, we also serve oats, whole wheat berries, maize, quinoa, amaranth, hato mugi, buckwheat, and other grains and cereals.



Millet is one of the most delicious, satisfying, and healthful foods on our planet. It was the principal grain in ancient China and gave rise to the treasured harmony, resourcefulness, and longevity of Chinese culture and civilization. Similarly, throughout central Africa, millet-based cultures flourished for thousands of years. In India, Mongolia, and Russia, it was also a traditional staple. Millet was the main food of the Hunza, the renowned long-lived people of the Himalayas who were said to have had no illness, conflict, or war until contact with modern culture and whose life spans reached up to 120 years or more. Before the founding of Rome, millet arrived in Europe and in Tuscany, where it later flourished and contributed to the Italian Renaissance. In the Western Hemisphere, millet was the first domesticated grain. It was cultivated in ancient Mexico thousands of years before maize. In the United States, a lavender variety of millet called Purple Majesty takes its name from “America the Beautiful,” one of the most popular national hymns, which begins: “O beautiful for spacious skies / for amber waves of grain / for purple mountain majesties / above the fruited plain!”


Today millet is eaten regularly by one-third of the people on the planet and is the fourth most abundant crop after wheat, rice, and maize. As scientific studies show, among its many physical and mental benefits, millet helps to prevent heart disease, cancer, and many other chronic diseases. It helps stabilize the emotions and, according to several recent macrobiotic medical studies, lowers blood sugar levels and is effective in treating diabetes.


Millet comes in various shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging from pale yellow to golden (in the Far East), red (India), white and black (Africa), and even green (America). Relative to rice and other grains, millet seeds are tiny. But the variations among millets are substantial, yielding seeds that can be small, medium, or large. Foxtail millet, the most common type of millet, is yellow and widely available in natural foods stores and selected supermarkets. It is the type we use regularly.



First she brought out a table and set it before them,

a fine one, well polished, its feet enameled in cobalt,

and set on it a bronze basket, with an onion as relish

for their drink, and pale honey, and sacred barley-meal,

with an exquisite cup, that old Nestor had brought from home,

studded with golden rivets.

            —Homer, Iliad


Barley is energetically lighter than rice or millet. Native to the Mediterranean, barley was the staple of ancient Greece, Egypt, Israel, and Mesopotamia, as well as the British Isles and parts of Central Europe. In addition to grain, porridge, soups, and stews, it was baked into bread and brewed into beer. In North America, barley arrived with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and supplemented maize as the principal grain in New England.


Whole-grain barley, the hardiest and most energizing type. It takes longer to cook and is chewier than pearled barley. It was the principal food recommended by Hippocrates to prevent and relieve common ailments. Pearled barley, or ordinary barley, is lightly refined. Its aleurone, or outer layer of endosperm, has been removed. It is still suitable for occasional use, but for strong, vitalizing energy whole-grain barley is preferred. Whole-grain barley is available from macrobiotic or natural foods mail-order companies.



Oats make a warm, nourishing breakfast porridge and are a principal grain in Scotland, Ireland, and other parts of the British Isles. Whole oats give the strongest, most vitalizing energy, especially in winter or cold weather. Scottish oats have been cut into smaller pieces and give moderate energy, while rolled oats or oat flakes give light upward energy. Oats are also used to make cookies, cakes, bread, and granola.



“Everywhere the grain stood ripe and the hot afternoon was full of the smell of the ripe wheat, like the smell of bread baking in an oven. The breath of the wheat and the sweet clover passed him like pleasant things in a dream.”

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!


Wheat, the most consumed grain on the planet, originated in the Fertile Crescent and spread around the world. Today it is also the main grain in China, especially the central and northern regions, where it displaced millet. Common varieties of wheat include hard red winter wheat that makes for stronger, firmer flour and is used mostly for bread and baked goods. Soft durum wheat is ideal for noodles, dumplings, and pasta. In addition to these popular foods, whole-grain wheat, known as wheat berries, may be eaten by themselves or combined with other grains. Wheat products include seitan, a dynamic fresh food made from wheat gluten; shoyu (natural soy sauce that includes wheat); and kombu broth and fu, dried wheat-gluten cakes or sheets. Recipes for these last two products are included in the chapter on Green Protein.



Rye, a grain originally from northern Europe, is used primarily in dark or brown breads. Like barley and wheat berries, rye is chewy and best combined with soft ingredients.



“Corn is the Hopi’s heart.”

—Hopi proverb

Maize, or Indian corn, originated in ancient Mexico and Guatemala. It initially spread to North and South America and eventually worldwide.


We use corn year around. In summer and autumn, we enjoy corn on the cob. In cooler seasons, we enjoy tortillas, arepas (corn masa cakes), polenta, corn bread, and other dishes. It is important to obtain heirloom varieties as much as possible because most corn, including organic, is hybrid, and about 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is GMO.



Buckwheat is a hardy northern cereal plant native to northern Europe, Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia. Brought to America by Dutch and German settlers, it grows wild in many regions. We enjoy buckwheat in the form of kasha (toasted buckwheat) and soba (traditional Japanese-style noodles). These dishes are especially warming and energizing on cold days or in wintertime.



Quinoa, the Mother Grain of the Incas, is traditionally grown in terraced fields in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. Its tiny seeds are high in protein and a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin E, and minerals and trace elements. Quinoa cooks up soft and fluffy. White, ivory, or golden quinoa is the most common type. Red quinoa holds its shape better in cooking than white and is used in salads and other distinct dishes. Black quinoa is earthier and sweeter than the other types and gives a slightly firmer texture. Quinoa products include flour, flakes, and pasta. Quinoa is gluten-free and a preferred grain for those who are gluten sensitive.


[1] Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Fifth Edition, Washington, DC: USDA and DHHS, 2000.

Excerpted from The One Peaceful World Cookbook by Alex Jack and Sachi Kato. © 2017 by the authors.