Popular over the course of centuries, the humble rice cracker, known collectively as senbei, continues to be a cornerstone of Japanese snack foods all the way into our modern age. Originating in Tang dynasty China, senbei come in a wide variety of shapes and flavors. Most of them are salty or savory, but some are sweet, and others, spicy. The original senbei brought from China had a slightly soft, slightly cake-like texture that survives today in the form of kawara senbei, which are commonly eaten with tea or coffee. Most senbei varieties, however, have evolved to favor a crisp, crunchy texture achieved by sun-drying and then slowly toasting rice dough over an open flame.
The crunchy style of senbei gained a great deal of popularity during the Edo period when a shop called Sokajuku began selling them. Their method of making senbei, which involved glazing the crackers with layers of soy sauce as they were baking, quickly caught on and spread around Japan. The soy sauce glazed cracker remains a favorite among senbei fans, though a number of other flavors have become popular as well. Today, there are around eight types of senbei hailed as “traditional” varieties. These include nori-wrapped, black sesame seed, red pepper (tougarashi), squid, shrimp, black soybean, and sugar coated senbei.
Nori-wrapped senbei are fairly straightforward-- they are very similar to their soy sauce coated cousins, but wrapped with a tasty sheet of nori seaweed to enhance the flavor. Black sesame senbei have roasted black sesame seeds kneaded into the dough for a nuttier taste. Black soybean senbei are nearly identical to the black sesame ones, only with roasted black soybeans instead of sesame seeds. Shrimp senbei feature pieces of shrimp ground up and mixed in with the cracker dough for a pinkish color and wonderful briney flavor. Squid senbei are somewhat similar, using flattened pieces of squid grilled together with a binding agent. Tougarashi senbei take the flavor in a different direction through being coated thickly with red chili pepper and chili flakes. Lasty, sugar senbei are coated with large sugar crystals for an appealing look, and even more appealing sweet taste.
Outside the traditional varieties, there are other types of senbei worth mentioning. One of the most popular are bite-sized senbei called arare. Arare are perfect for snacking and dangerously easy to eat by the handful. They come in a number of flavors, shapes, and textures and are often paired with wasabi peas, peanuts, and sesame sticks for fun mixed snack. Another type of senbei you may encounter, though likely not out of Japan, is called hone senbei. Hone senbei are made from the deep fried spines of fish or eel. They are very crunchy, and usually eaten as a bar snack.
With so many different types of senbei, it’s easy to find something to fit any taste. From salty to sweet to spicy, palm size to bite size, there is certainly something in the world of senbei for everyone.