In ancient times, rice malt syrup was believed to be of divine origin. As if by some heavenly plan, the addition of a few sprouts of barley to rice resulted in golden liquid sweetness. Rice was considered a gift of the gods, and its transformation into an ambrosial liquid sweetness was only allowed to take place in shrines and sacred places.
In modern Japan, traditional rice malt syrup, called mizu ame (“sweet water”), is hard to find. In fact, you may be more likely to find authentic rice malt syrup in an American or European natural foods store than in a modern Japanese supermarket.
There are several types of rice syrup available in natural food, Oriental food, and grocery stores around the world. Their quality varies from Mitoku’s Uchida-style brown rice malt syrup to white rice syrup that is made with enzymes and added sugar. The most common variation of the traditional method is made by substituting laboratory-produced enzymes for the sprouted barley.
Naturally occurring digestive enzymes, such as those in sprouted barley or koji, are part of a living cell, but by themselves they are not alive. In the laboratory, enzymes are isolated from the rest of the cell and are, therefore, no longer attached to a living system. Producers who use enzymes can control the percentage of maltose and glucose in the final product, and the process is much quicker and more economical.
However, traditional makers of rice malt syrup contend that there is a distinct “qualitative” difference between their product and enzyme-converted rice syrup. “In nature, a cell wouldn’t let you use just one or two enzymes,” explains rice-syrup authority Jim Allen. “With koji or sprouted barley many enzymes are at work holistically digesting proteins and fats as well as carbohydrates.” Gunichi Uchida claims there is a difference in the taste. He feels that with laboratory-produced enzymes you simply cannot get the full range of tastes that you get with sprouted barley.
If you are confused about which rice syrup you are buying, simply read the label. Look for sprouted barley in the ingredients list. Authentic rice or brown rice malt syrup, such as the Uchida products sold under the Mitoku label, contains whole grain rice, sprouted barley, and water. Enzyme-converted rice syrup usually lists rice and water as the only ingredients. Another grain can be substituted for the rice. For example, the Uchida Toka Company makes the ultimate sweetener (especially for a healing diet) by substituting hato mugi (Job’s tears) for brown rice in the malt recipe.
Rice malt syrup is a natural food in every sense of the word. The process begins with whole grains and simply lets nature take its course. With gentle warming and occasional stirring, rice malt syrup actually makes itself. No wonder the ancient Japanese considered rice malt syrup to be a gift from the gods. It is!
Sugars are the fuel of life, and sweeteners are something everyone instinctively desires. How we satisfy this craving for sweets can have a significant effect on our health and happiness. The quick energy lift from refined white sugar, brown sugar, fructose, honey, and maple syrup can cause rapid mood shifts on a daily basis. Over long periods of time, this can result in mental illness, hypoglycemia, diabetes, and other hormonal and degenerative diseases.
When choosing sweeteners, it is important to consider both quantity and quality. There is, of course, a world of difference between using lots of white sugar, which has no nutritional value, and using a moderate amount of honey or maple syrup, which has some nutritional value. However, even regular consumption of these higher quality sweeteners can cause rapid upsurges in blood sugar levels, followed soon after by dramatic plummets. This cycle, often referred to as the “sugar blues,” is due to a high concentration of simple sugars. The next time you start the day with pancakes smothered in maple syrup, pay particular attention to your emotions over the next few hours. The first sign of the sugar blues is usually anxiety or irritability, typically followed by low energy or depression.
If you are eating a healing diet or if you simply want to enjoy the highest quality sweeteners available, choose naturally malted whole grain sweeteners such as rice or brown rice malt syrup. Like many of the traditional foods discussed on this web site, rice malt syrup is made by a slow, natural enzymatic process, as the whole grains are partially broken down to yield a thick, rich, sweet liquid.
Rice malt syrup contains about 30 percent soluble complex carbohydrates, 45 percent maltose (grain malt sugar), 3-4 percent glucose, and 20 percent water. The glucose is absorbed into the blood almost immediately. The maltose takes up to one and a half hours to digest, and the complex carbohydrates are gradually digested and released for up to four hours. Unlike other concentrated sweeteners, which are high in simple sugars, rice malt syrup provides a slow but prolonged source of energy that is calming and soothing.
Another advantage of rice or brown rice malt syrup is that it has many of the B vitamins and minerals that are found in rice and sprouted barley. Characteristically rich but mild flavored, rice malt syrup complements simple foods, whereas honey, maple syrup, and molasses have stronger, often overpowering tastes. Before Commodore Perry’s ships forced open Japan’s ports to American trade almost 150 years ago, the Japanese sweet tooth was usually satisfied with the subtle sweetness of amazake (fermented sweet rice pudding), mirin (sweet rice wine), or brown rice malt syrup. Today, after over a century of experimenting with white sugar, the Japanese are also singing the “sugar blues”. But scattered throughout Japan are a few small traditional shops, such as Mitoku’s producer, the Uchida Toka Company, that still make rice and brown rice malt syrup exactly the way it was made before the introduction of white sugar.
One of the world’s few remaining authentic brown rice malt syrup shops is Mitoku’s producer, the Uchida Toka Company, in Fukuyama, Japan. As with other traditional Japanese foods, making brown rice malt syrup is a complex craft requiring a great deal of labor, knowledge, and fine-tuned intuition.
Gunichi Uchida, head of this family-run business, begins the process of making his irresistibly sweet yet subtle, thick syrup with crushed and dried organic sprouted barley. The barley is traditionally grown and processed in the mountains around Japan’s former capital of Kyoto. Organic barley grains are simply soaked in water until they sprout. They are then dried and crushed, which preserves the delicate enzymes that seeds naturally produce in order to convert their starch into usable sugars for sprouting. Uchida is particularly interested in the enzymes that change the starch into maltose, a di-saccharide sugar used by seeds for sprouting.
First, Uchida flakes brown rice and soaks it overnight. The following morning he steams the flakes for one hour, adding a little water to form a thick porridge called kayu. Then, as the porridge is gently stirred, sprouted barley is added.
The delicate enzymes in the sprouted barley are easily destroyed by heat, so Uchida does not let the temperature of his rice porridge go above 158 degrees F. After adding the sprouted barley, Uchida transfers the mixture to a vat, and keeps it at a temperature between 140-158 degrees F for several hours. During this short time, the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats of the brown rice are broken down into less complex sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids. The longer it is kept, the darker and sweeter the porridge becomes. However, if left for too long, the mixture begins to develop an alcoholic smell and taste. In fact, making rice porridge is one of the steps in the traditional process of making rice wine.
Long before any alcohol develops, Uchida’s years of experience tell him it is time to stop the fermentation process by heating the mixture above 158 degrees F. (70 degrees C.). The pasteurized porridge is then transferred to cotton sacks and pressed. As the thick amber liquid drips from the press, it is collected and filtered through cotton cloth.
Finally, the clear-filtered brown rice malt syrup is cooked down for several hours, first by direct cooking and then by steaming. When Uchida feels the malt has reached the perfect thickness, it is filtered one final time and then bottled.
Rice malt syrup has a full, slightly nutty flavor with a hint of butterscotch. Its gentle, balanced sweetness provides the perfect alternative to refined sugar in many snacks and desserts. Rice malt syrup is excellent in salad dressings and dips, as well as in vegetable dishes such as candied yams and pickles.
Rice malt syrup is considerably less sweet than sugar, honey, and maple syrup. To achieve an equivalent sweetness, substitute one and a half cups of rice syrup for one cup of white sugar, three-fourths cup of maple syrup, or one-half cup of honey. When substituting liquid sweeteners for sugar, it is necessary to reduce the total amount of liquid that is called for in the recipe.
If a sweeter taste is desired in the following recipes, or when substituting rice malt syrup for more concentrated sweeteners in other recipes, use a combination of rice malt syrup with honey or maple syrup. A good rule is to initially substitute rice malt syrup for one-half of the maple syrup or honey that is called for in a recipe. Gradually increase the proportion of rice malt syrup until your taste buds are satisfied by desserts that are sweetened with rice malt syrup only.
The texture or thickness of rice malt syrup varies according to the brand and to the temperature at which it is stored. If the syrup is too stiff to pour, place the uncovered jar in a saucepan with 2 inches of water and let it simmer a minute or two. When the syrup warms up, it will pour easily.