If you’re looking for a crunchy Japanese snack, you ought to give senbei a try.
Senbei is one of Japan’s classic, traditional snack foods; much older than Pocky sticks (by a couple of centuries).
But, you may be wondering, what is senbei? What’s in senbei? Is senbei healthy?
Read on to find out:
Senbei is the Japanese name for a type of rice cracker. These aren’t puffed rice cakes, the bland, low-calorie “diet food.” These are way better.
Many kinds of Japanese rice crackers are baked, while some are fried. Deep-fried senbei crackers are called age senbei. In some locations throughout Japan, you will find fresh, homemade rice crackers grilled over charcoal.
Senbei crackers are often seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce). Other options include mirin rice wine, and miso.
Senbei is typically a savory snack, but they make sweet varieties as well. And although the key ingredient in most senbei is rice, potato flour and wheat versions also exist.
Senbei, arare, and okaki
Lots of people (myself included) have a bad habit of using the term senbei, or osembei, to describe all types of Japanese rice crackers.
Technically speaking, that’s not quite correct. Japanese rice crackers come in three main varieties — senbei, arare, and okaki.
- Senbei: Generally, senbei crackers tend to be larger than arare or okaki. They are frequently flat and round, but other shapes exist. Senbei is made with uruchimai, also known as sushi rice, “ordinary rice,” or non-glutinous rice.
- Arare: Arare crackers are bite-sized, and come in many different shapes. Arare is made from mochigome, or glutinous rice. Arare is usually baked, unless it’s age arare (deep-fried).
- Okaki: Like arare, okaki is made with mochi rice. But okaki is usually larger. Okaki can be baked, toasted, or deep-fried.
Note that both glutinous and non-glutinous rice are gluten-free. “Glutinous” refers to the glue-like, sticky texture when cooked. (Glue-tinous, get it?)
In addition to these three basic types, Japanese rice crackers also come in a wide variety of flavors, including:
- Norimaki arare: Features nori (dried seaweed) wrapped around a rice cracker, similar to maki sushi rolls. If you like larger rice crackers, look for norimaki senbei instead.
- Kuro goma senbei: Features kuro goma (black sesame). Kuromame senbei contains black soy beans instead.
- Kaki-no-tane: If you like spice with your crunch, try these. The name kaki-no-tane literally means persimmon seed. The unique crescent shape is supposed to resemble a seed. These rice crackers have Japanese red pepper in them. Some variations add wasabi flavoring. Others go even spicier and add shichimi togarashi (“seven spice”) — the same spicy stuff that people sprinkle on ramen.
- Kaki-pi: Sometimes people will add peanuts to kaki-no-tane to create an interesting mixture.
- Zarame senbei: This is one of the sweet senbei varieties. Sugar is sprinkled on top.
Of course, there are many other varieties. If you visit Japan, you will find that different areas have regional flavors.
Is senbei healthy to eat? Online opinions vary. Of course, too much of anything can be bad for you, especially snack foods eaten between regular meals.
However, some websites do say that rice crackers are better for you than potato or corn chips. When you snack, senbei can be a healthy alternative.
If you’re trying to stick to a diet, consider choosing individually-wrapped rice crackers, instead of all loose in one bag. Not only does that require you to stop and unwrap each one, but it may help keep the product fresher.
Livestrong.com states that Japanese rice crackers are low in fat, with 1 gram of fat in a 28-gram serving. Other websites recommend baked crackers over deep-fried varieties.
Salt can be an issue with savory snacks. But, according to reports, senbei is actually relatively low in sodium, compared to some salty snacks.
Of course, we can only offer general advice. Different types of senbei may have different calorie, fat, or sodium levels.
Senbei history and trivia
- Web searches for norimaki senbei will inevitably bring up wacky inventor Senbei Norimaki, from Akira Toriyama’s manga Dr. Slump. The comedy features Senbei’s little robot girl, Arale. Yes, Toriyama named both characters after crackers.
- Senbei is written with the same kanji as jianbing, a Chinese sweet crepe.
- Jianbing probably arrived in Japan in the 700s. However, Japanese cooks modified jianbing to the point where it no longer resembled the Chinese version.
- Modern senbei was invented at some point during the Edo period (1603-1868).
- Soka City in Saitama claims to be the birthplace of senbei. You can make your own at Soka Senbei Garden.
I hope this helps you understand senbei better.
Looking to buy some senbei from Japan? Head over to our partner ZenPlus.
2 thoughts on “What is Japanese Senbei?”
Wow! So much senbei information! I had no idea there were so many different kinds of senbei. I can kind of understand how senbei came from a Chinese crepe. When you make senbei at home, you have to flatten them until they are very thin so the crisp up in the oven. They are as thin as crepes.
Yeah!!! There are so many kinds in Japan