Senbei: A Traditional Japanese Treat

Senbei are crispy crackers made from rice (and often flavored). These crispy treats come in   both sweet and savory varieties, and have been a Japanese favorite for over a thousand years. Traditionally, the crackers are made from rice flour (sometimes with the addition of potato or other glutinous flours, though usually without wheat) either baked or grilled until crispy and light.

Sanjo Road at Kamo River

Senbei arrived in Japan from China during the 8th century, and have been a common and popular snack ever since. They come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors, many of which never reach the United States–which is truly a shame.

During my research trip to Japan last summer, I visited a traditional senbei shop on the banks of the Kamo River (at Sanjo Road–a location readers might recognize from my novels, though unfortunately this shop has “only” been in existence since the 18th century, so it doesn’t appear in my books).

16D17 Senbei shop

The shop’s displays demonstrate the wide variety of senbei; I sampled many and enjoyed them all.

16D17 senbei shop with noren

Some senbei have salty soy-based glazes, while others have dustings of crystal sugar or even cocoa powder. My favorite has a slightly sweet (but not sticky) glaze and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts.

Most “sweet” senbei aren’t overly sweet to a Western palate used to chocolate bars and other sugary snacks; instead, they’re lighter–though still plenty sweet. Some use combinations of sweet and salty flavors, an unusual and memorable snack.

Like many aspects of Japanese culture, senbei differ regionally, and many geographic locations offer “specialty” forms of the popular snack (as well as more standard varieties, which are available pretty much everywhere).

Senbei from the Kansai (a region in in south-central Honshu which includes Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe) feature more delicate flavors and a lighter crunch, while those from the Kantō (which includes seven prefectures to the northeast of the Kansai, including Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Chiba) are crunchier and pack a more dramatic flavor punch.

16D17 Senbei shop (jars)

Another popular cracker, similar to but distinct from traditional senbei are the small, round crunchy crackers known as arare (あられ) or “hailstones.” Many Western markets carry these small, round crackers, either packaged alone or as part of crunchy snack mixes. The only real difference between arare and senbei is size and shape–and technically, the term “senbei” isn’t incorrect in either case, though the terms are useful when trying to make sure you receive the cracker you’re looking for.

Have you ever eaten Japanese senbei? If so, which type is your favorite? If not…do you think you would, if you had the chance?