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What is Senbei? The Japanese Rice Crackers With a 1000 Year History

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Senbei (煎餅), crunchy rice crackers, are one of the oldest Japanese snacks—and one of the most popular!

You can buy them in convenience stores, supermarkets, dagashi-ya, and even department stores, all over Japan. More luxurious senbei are often served with green tea to welcome guests, especially in more traditional homes and ryokan. But senbei can also be eaten at any time, anywhere, as a convenient, delicious snack.

What is Senbei?

The basic senbei is made of flour (either glutinous or non-glutinous rice flour), cooked rice, water, and oil. This dough is then roasted, baked, or deep-fried and dipped in a selection of toppings, ranging from soy sauce to sugar. The result is a crunchy rice cracker, which can be either savory or sweet, as Japan’s answer to both chips and cookies!

A Short History of Japanese Rice Crackers

What is senbei? A traditional Japanese snack shop displays rice crackers known as senbei.

Senbei didn’t start as rice crackers at all. Rather, they began in China during the Three Kingdom’s Period as a kind of crepe called jianbing, still eaten there today. Over 1000 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty, the sweet variety of jiangbing came to Japan and began to be called senbei. However, the cracker we know today wasn’t created until the Edo period in a small post town called Soka. The most common theory for the origins of modern senbei is that a woman named Osen, who ran a teahouse had leftover dango dumplings. She decided to try flattening and roasting the dumplings, creating a crunchy, and easily transportable, treat. These new senbei became so popular, they spread throughout the country. Many of Japan’s most famous senbei shops began during the Edo era, and are still selling senbei today!

10 Types of Senbei to Try

Senbei are usually made with rice flour, but they can have other ingredients mixed in, like sesame, and different toppings! This list covers ten of Japan’s most popular senbei types. 

If you want to try some senbei too, you can get them here on Japan Haul!

1. Soy Sauce

Shoyu (soy sauce) senbei are the original kind, also called Soka senbei for the city where they were invented. The cracker is brushed with a  soy sauce glaze after roasting. The saltiness and umami from the shoyu make shoyu senbei surprisingly addictive. An entire pack might disappear before you know it!

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2. Nori

The original soy sauce senbei is taken up a notch by wrapping it in nori seaweed for added texture and a taste of the sea. Nori can also be added to the dough before baking, decorating the crackers with flecks of green.

3. Black Sesame 

Another popular take on the original, this time with kurogoma, also called black sesame seeds. The sesame seeds are added to the dough before baking, giving a nutty flavor to the crackers.

4. Kameda Seika Soft Salad

These rice crackers are flavored with vinegar and oil, a salad dressing-like mixture that gave them their name. Thanks to their sour tang, they remain one of the most popular snacks in Japanese supermarkets.

5. Shrimp 

You can find versions of Ebi (shrimp) senbei with small shrimp or minced shrimp baked into them, at grocery stores and convenience stores. However, the most luxurious of these crackers, which can cost over 1000 yen apiece, have an entire large shrimp inside!

6. Bone

Hone-senbei are the strangest on this list. Although they are called senbei, they are not normal crackers. Hone means bone in Japanese, and these senbei really are made of bone, usually the spine from eel or fish. The bones are deep fried and well seasoned, making them crunchy and easy to eat. They are a great way to get your calcium, and a perfect snack to accompany sake, which is why they are often served at izakaya. Would you be willing to try bone senbei?

What is senbei? A traditional Japanese snack shop displays traditional rice crackers known as senbei.

7. Kuromame (Black Soybean) 

These senbei have slightly sweet black soybeans added to their dough. The beans become crispy and nutty during the backing process, adding a fun texture and flavour to the typical cracker.

8. Kawara (Roof Tile)

No, these senbei are not made of roof tiles, they just look like the tiles used in the roofs of traditional Japanese homes. They are not made of rice flour, but rather flour, eggs, and sugar, similar to Western cookies. And, like cookies, they go well dipped in black tea or coffee.

9. Zarame

These rice crackers are coated in soy sauce but are also dusted with sugar crystals. The salty-sweet combo is reminiscent of salted caramel and makes them irresistible.

10. Yuki-no-Yado 

The Yuki-no-Yado Senbei, whose name translates to snow roof, are named for the white frosting on these senbei’s surface, which makes them look like a snowy rooftop. The soft sugar of the glaze melts in your mouth, combining deliciously with the saltiness of the cracker.

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