Senbei せんべい are Japanese rice crackers, often in the shape of a flat or square disk, which are pan-fried, steamed or baked. They have been popular snacks in Japan for centuries, and are often eaten with japanese green tea.
Senbei are available in a wide variety of flavors, from savory to sweet to spicy. In this article, we’ll explore the history of senbei, their preparation, and some of the most popular flavors.
The history of senbei
Senbei have a long history in Japan, dating back to the Heian period (794-1185). At that time, Japanese rice was used primarily to produce sake, so senbei production was a secondary activity for farmers. Senbei were initially made by hand, but as demand grew, more efficient production techniques were developed.
Over the centuries, senbei have become a staple of Japanese cuisine. They come in all shapes and sizes, from simple crackers sold in combini to more elaborate versions sold in specialized stores. These were often given as gifts on holidays and celebrations, and their popularity has spread beyond Japan’s borders.
Senbei are traditionally prepared by mixing Japanese Joshinko rice flour, water and seasonings to create a dough. The dough is then flattened and cut into disks, and pan-fried, steamed or baked until crisp.
Some variants are also deep-fried.
Popular and original senbei flavours
Senbei is available in a wide variety of flavors, each associated with a particular region or culinary tradition. Here are just a few examples of popular flavors:
- Shoyu senbei: senbei seasoned with soy sauce, which originated in the Kanto region.
- Nori senbei: senbei seasoned with nori seaweed, native to the Kansai region.
- Wasabi senbei: senbei seasoned with wasabi, from the Shizuoka region.
- Murasaki imo senbei: sweet senbei seasoned with purple sweet potato, from the Kyushu region.
- Tako senbei: a unique senbei with a whole squashed octopus in the center. We had the opportunity to try it, and it’s both original and delicious!
During your visit to Nara, an interesting anecdote awaits you: fallow deer are omnipresent in the city. You’ll even be able to buy senbei specially designed for them! But be warned: once you’ve given them senbei, fallow deer won’t leave you alone! It’s not uncommon for people to be harassed or mauled by these fallow deer once they’ve tasted the senbei.
Senbei in Japan
Japanese senbei are popular and delicious snacks that have the particularity of keeping for a very long time without losing their crispness.
You can easily find them in all shapes and sizes and at all prices, on the streets, in markets, in combini and, of course, in stores dedicated to senbei, which offer beautiful boxes specially designed to provide sweet or savoury senbei .
It’s a food rooted in Japanese culinary culture, which explains why many Japanese stores offering it have been handed down from generation to generation, some even dating back to the 19th century.
Arare あられ the smaller version of senbei
Arare are another type of Japanese rice cracker, often confused with senbei due to their similar appearance. Unlike senbei, however, arare are smaller and often harder. They are also available in a wide variety of flavors, from savory to sweet, and are often eaten as snacks and aperitifs in izakaya.
Arare have just as rich a history as senbei, dating back to the 7th century. Back then, arare were considered ritual food offered to the gods during Shinto religious ceremonies. Over time, arare became a staple of Japanese cuisine, and is now a staple of aperitifs.
As with senbei, arare are made from Japanese rice flour, soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine) ornori seaweed. Arare can also be mixed with other ingredients, such as peanuts, sugar crystals or fried peas, to add flavor and texture.
Personally, we love senbei, and often eat them as an aperitif with a Japanese beer! The sweet versions are also delicious, light and tasty – we love them! What’s your favorite senbei ?