Rice is an extremely important ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Served alongside many traditional Japanese meals, it is also used to make a large variety of different foods, from sweet desserts to fermented alcoholic drinks to savory breads. One of the most prevalent types of foods made from rice are senbei — rice crackers. And just as there seem to be hundreds of varieties of potato chips available in the United States, so too are there many types and flavors of senbei to choose from in Japan.
What Are Senbei?
Senbeai are simply crackers made from rice, though the type of rice and the preparation methods can vary depending upon the region and manufacturer. They exist in many different flavors, shapes, sizes, and textures, much like the American potato chip.
The History of Senbei
While the humble potato chip was only first introduced to our palates in the 1800s, senbei have apparently been in existence since the 8th century. Although records show that the first incarnation of senbei was actually made from a grain flour or potato, and not rice, during the modern Edo period of Japan, senbei were being made using toasted rice.
Different regions utilize different preparation and cooking methods for making the traditional rice crackers. In the Kanto region of Japan, senbei are made with a non-glutinous rice flour and baked or roasted. The Kansai region prefers to use glutinous rice. And today, the senbai can also be baked or fried.
Classic Types of Senbei
Soy Sauce Senbei
Easily the most popular of all the senbei, the soy sauce flavored rice crackers are actually dipped into soy sauce as they are made, and then roasted, serving to intensify the flavor and deliver savory umami. They can be purchased in both thin and thick sizes to suit your taste.
These are essentially soy sauce senbei that have been wrapped in nori seaweed. The addition of the nori adds another layer of satisfying umami. The nori senbei might also be made with pieces of nori baked into the dough, rather than wrapped around it.
Sato senbei are a sweeter variety of rice cracker, coated with a dusting of powdered sugar. The word “sato” means sugar in Japanese.
If you seek a sweeter taste from your rice crackers, then you’ll definitely want to try zarame senbeai. These rice crackers are made with a coating of large sugar crystals, known as zarame sugar, hence the name.
A type of rice cracker that is fried, rather than baked or roasted. Age means to fry. The fried rice crackers usually exhibit a sweet and salty flavor.
These senbei are made with vegetable oil, which is referred to as salad oil in Japan. The rice crackers are usually pale white in color and have a salty flavor.
A traditional type of rice cracker made from non-glutinous rice and fried. It is often sold in an assortment of three flavors: original, black sesame and red miso, and soy sauce.
This type of senbei contains black sesame seeds. The seeds add a particularly nutty flavor to the rice cracker.
Special Types of Senbei
There are also several types of special senbei featuring more distinctive flavors or textures, made by artisans or from specific regions of Japan and China.
For a different textural experience from your rice crackers, you’ll want to try these special senbei from Chiba. “Nure” in Japanese means wet, and the cracker lives up to the name — it is dipped into soy sauce when it is being cooked, resulting in a moist cracker with a chewier texture.
Hailing from the Fukuoka area of Japan, these special senbei crackers feature mentaiko fish roe, which exhibit a distinctive spicy flavor. As such, these rice crackers are slightly spicy, slightly salty, and full of umami goodness.
Made in Hokkaido, these rice crackers are made in conjunction with a curry shop in Sapporo. The famous curry, sweeter than traditional curries, adds a unique flavor of spices and a delectable aroma to these senbei.
These shrimp senbei are distinctively thin and soft, and feature small threads of pink or red, which is the result of mixing pieces of minced shrimp into the dough before the crackers are baked.
Another type of seafood senbei, these squid senbei can be made by either mixing pieces of grilled squid together and baking them, or simply placing a piece of the grilled squid on top of the cracker while baking.
Discover the Exciting Worlds of Flavor With Senbei
The variety of senbei mentioned above are only a small sampling of the world of flavor that awaits you. Visit your local Asian supermarket or browse senbei varieties online, and you’ll find many more to choose from. From hot and spicy senbei flavored with wasabi or togarashi to sweeter senbei that are more akin to cookies than crackers, these flavorful crackers make a great snack at any time of day!