Beodeul byeo is a rare variety of non-glutinous japonica rice (Oryza sativa) from the area around Gongju-si in Chungcheongnam-do, western South Korea. It is one of the oldest rice landraces from the Korean Peninsula and is mentioned in the Imwongyeongjeji, a massive encyclopedia on rural life and agricultural economy compiled in the early 19th century. Beodeul byeo translates to “willow rice”; the variety is closely linked with Beodeulmi village, though it is not entirely clear whether the place took its name from the rice or visa versa; the rice itself can also be referred to as Beodeulmi (mi means “rice”). Beodeulmi village is in Yupyeong-ri, a town in Gyeryong-myeon, south of the city of Gongju. The rice’s name also reflects its physical appearance: When mature, the seed heads bend over and, because of their long awns (the hairs that grow from the end of the seeds), look like weeping willow.
In Beodeulmi, as elsewhere in Korea, rice seedlings are transplanted into the paddies between the last spring frosts and the summer solstice (Haji), primarily in late May and early June. Beodeul byeo is an early-ripening variety, so it can be planted a week or 2 later than other varieties. The panicles (seed heads) grow to a length of 15 centimeters, and the plant itself to a height of 130 cm. Because it is so tall, this variety is prone to lodging (which is when a grain stalk breaks under the weight of the seed head). When the seed heads begin to develop, they have a very pale primrose yellow color; from a distance, the rice paddies appear to be covered in feathery white flowers. As they reach maturity, the small, round grains turn light brown. In the autumn, the rice is harvested with sickles and then dried and threshed. Some seeds are kept aside for the following season. The grains are translucent and can be polished to varying degrees: The fully polished rice has a mild flavor, similar to that of glutinous rice, while half-polished rice gives off a richer fragrance.
When Japan occupied Korea in 1910, new rice varieties were introduced and traditional local varieties began to be abandoned. However, it was not until the 1960s that Beodeul byeo fell into serious decline: During this time, and in the decades that followed, new economic policy and sweeping changes to the agriculture sector led to the adoption of high-yielding rice varieties that were less prone to lodging and therefor easier to harvest mechanically. By the 1980s, despite its superior flavor compared to many of the modern varieties, Beodeul byeo was nearly extinct. Today, it is grown on just a few hectares in Beodeulmi and a handful of other places in the region. It is grown primarily for home consumption, though determined consumers can sometimes buy it directly from producers, and there is now a small harvest festival.