In the West, we have salt bae. In Japan, there is senbei. Senbei is a traditional Japanese snack enjoyed for centuries. These crispy rice crackers are loved for their unique flavors and textures and are a staple snack food in Japan. In this guide, we will look at the history of senbei, its regional specialties, the different types of senbei available, and ways to use it.
A Brief History of Senbei
The history of senbei dates back to the 8th century when it was first introduced to Japan by Chinese immigrants. The original senbei was made from wheat flour and vegetable oil, which were then baked into thin crackers. Over time, the recipe evolved to include rice flour as the main ingredient, and senbei became a popular snack food throughout Japan.
What is senbei?
Senbei, also known as Japanese rice crackers, plays a major role in Japanese culture. It is served as a snack during tea ceremonies, festivals, and other celebrations. In Japanese households, senbei is commonly enjoyed with green tea or as a side dish. Senbei is also a popular souvenir for tourists visiting Japan, as it is considered a quintessential Japanese snack.
For other classic Japanese snacks, check out our list of Must Try Snacks in Japan!
What is senbei made of?
Senbei is made from flour (typically glutinous rice) and water mixed to form a dough. Then, the dough is flattened into thin rounds or rectangles and baked or grilled until crispy. Some senbei varieties are also deep-fried. Some senbei are sweet, while others are salty or spicy.
Types of senbei
There are many different types of senbei available, each with its own unique flavor and texture. Here are some of the most popular types of senbei, and similar sancks like okaki and arare.
- Shoyu (Soy Sauce) senbei
- Nori (Seaweed) senbei
- Kuro Goma (Black Sesame) senbei
- Togarashi (Red Chili Pepper) senbei
- Ika (Squid) senbei
- Ebi (Shrimp) senbei
- Kuromame (Black Soybean) senbei
- Zarame (Sugar) senbei
- Kaki no Tane senbei
- Hone (Fish Bone) senbei
1. Shoyu (Soy Sauce) senbei
Shoyu (Soy Sauce) senbei is coated with soy sauce for a savory taste. It can be either baked or grilled into a flat, round shape.
2. Nori (Seaweed) senbei
Seaweed senbei is mixed with dried seaweed flakes for a salty, ocean-like taste. The senbei can be made with either rice or wheat flour and baked to achieve a crispy texture. It is often rectangular or square.
3. Kuro Goma (Black Sesame) senbei
Coated with black sesame seeds, giving them a nutty flavor and crunchy texture, black sesame senbei is made with rice flour. The shape of kuro goma senbei can vary, but typically flat and round.
4. Togarashi (Red Chili Pepper) senbei
Togarashi senbei is seasoned with red chili pepper for a spicy kick and made in small, round shapes. It is made with rice flour and is usually baked or grilled.
5. Ika (Squid) senbei
Ika (Squid) senbei is a flat, round senbei that uses a whole squid for an impactful presentation. It is made with either rice or wheat flour and is usually deep-fried to create a crispy texture.
6. Ebi (Shrimp) senbei
Shaped into small, round discs, shrimp senbei is mixed with dried powdered shrimp for a seafood flavor. It is made with either rice or wheat flour and then deep-fried.
7. Kuromame (Black Soybean) senbei
Kuromame (Black Soybean) senbei is made with black soybeans and rice flour for a rich, earthy taste.
8. Zarame senbei
Zarame senbei is shaped into discs and coated with sugar for a sweet taste. It is made with rice flour and baked or grilled.
9. Kaki no tane senbei
Kaki no tane senbei is named after its shape, which resembles the seeds of persimmon fruit. This type of senbei is mixed with peanuts or other nuts.
Okaki, arare, and hone senbei
What's the difference between senbei, okaki and arare? Okaki and arare are both made from glutenous rice flour, while senbei is made from non-glutenous rice flour. This means okaki and arare tend to be more chewy on the inside than senbei.
The last three senbei on the list are separated because they are not made of non-glutinous rice flour. Okaki and arare are made from glutinous rice flour, while hone senbei is made from fish bones.
Okaki is made from glutinous rice that has been steamed and mashed, then shaped into small rectangular blocks. The blocks are then toasted or grilled, giving them a crispy texture on the outside and a chewy texture on the inside.
Arare is small, bite-sized senbei made from glutinous rice flour that are often flavored with soy sauce and mixed with peanuts or other nuts for added texture. It is named for its resemblance to hailstones, known as "arare" in Japanese.
A colorful version is made for Hina-matsuri aka girls' festival on March 3.
12. Hone (fish bone) senbei
In hone senbei, fish bones are the main ingredient used to make the senbei. They are grilled until crispy and seasoned with soy sauce for a savory taste. Eel spines are a popular version of hone senbei.
Regional varieties of senbei
In addition to the classic flavors and styles, there are also regional varieties of senbei.
Hokkaido and Aomori senbei
Hokkaido is home to shiroi koibito senbei, a delicate and buttery senbei covered in white chocolate. There's also kare senbei flavored with curry powder, a popular taste in Hokkaido.
In Aomori, Nanbu senbei is made with just three ingredients: wheat flour, water, and salt.
In Soka City, senbei-making is a traditional craft passed down from generation to generation. But not all senbei are created equal. The highest grade of Soka Senbei is made by a senbei chief one by one and comes in many different types. A single piece can cost up to 1,000 yen. It’s the Kanye West white t-shirt version of senbei. In 2018, a Mona Lisa replica was created with 24,000 senbei rice crackers, earning Guinness world recognition as the world's largest mosaic made of the treat!
Other variations of senbei
Kawara senbei, named and shaped after the traditional roofing material used in Japan, can be found in Hyogo and Kagawa prefectures.
Nure senbei in Chiba is a soft and moist senbei. Since it's "wet," it has a softer texture than other senbei.
Some regions have unique flavors, like mentaiko senbei flavored with spicy cod roe in Fukuoka.
Other ways to eat senbei
Senbei can be enjoyed in a variety of ways beyond just as a snack. One delicious way to incorporate senbei into a meal is by making senbei jiru, a soup topped with pieces of nanbu senbei. The senbei pieces absorb the flavors of the broth and become soft and chewy, adding a unique texture to the soup. Senbei can also be used as a crunchy topping for salads, mixed into rice bowls, used as a substitute for breadcrumbs, or even crumbled over ice cream for a sweet and savory dessert. Senbei truly represents the diversity of Japanese cuisine.
Where to buy senbei
Senbei can be found throughout Japan in supermarkets, convenience stores, and specialty stores. They are also widely available for purchase online, both within Japan and internationally. Try our specially curated box of healthy Japanese snacks to see for yourself. Made with umami-rich ingredients like kelp, shitake mushrooms and bonito, the senbei included in the snack box come in three different classic Japanese flavors: seaweed (nori), spring onion (negi) and miso.
In addition, many souvenir shops and tourist attractions will have locally-made senbei available for purchase, allowing visitors to try regional varieties of this popular snack. If you're lucky enough to be in Japan, you can even visit a senbei shop and watch the skilled artisans make fresh senbei right before your eyes.
If you're looking for a savory snack, a crunchy topping for your soup, or a unique gift for a friend, senbei is a great option. So why not try some senbei for yourself and discover the rich flavors and traditions that make it such a beloved snack in Japan? I was going to write a joke about senbei, but it would only be half-baked.