Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
There’s no denying the popularity of senbei and kakimochi in Hawai‘i’s local culture. Football fans munched on it during games at Aloha Stadium, others garnered “a look” when breaking open an odoriferous pack on the plane. And, what local hasn’t enjoyed a Hurricane mix at the movie theater? During “small kid time,” many relished the savory snack after school from crack seed stores. For varieties other than the standard shoyu or nori, some trekked to Shirokiya or Ishiharaya. Sadly, both businesses have folded, but Japanese rice cracker snacks remain extremely popular with foodies, kids, Japanophiles or just about anyone. Covered in li hing mui powder, dipped in chocolate or put into cookies instead of chocolate chips, kakimochi is probably the island’s most popular Japanese rice cracker. In Japan however, senbei arguably occupies the rice cracker throne.
First some clarification
Okaki, arare, kakimochi and senbei. What’s the difference? Some are sweet, others are savory. What sets them apart are their ingredients, shape and size. There are three main types of rice crackers: arare, okaki and senbei. Arare is derived from the Japanese word for snow pellet, hence the name for these bite-sized rice morsels made from glutinous rice or mochi rice. Kakimochi, another name for arare, is the term most often used in Hawai‘i since it was brought to the islands by Japanese plantation workers in the early to mid 19th century. Many in the islands use this term to refer to all Japanese rice crackers although some also refer to it as “mochi crunch.” Okaki is also made from mochi rice, but is larger. Finally, there is senbei. Fried, baked or painstakingly grilled over charcoal, these round, flat, yummy discs are usually created from uruchimai or non-glutinous rice. In other areas of Japan like Aomori or Iwate Prefecture, however, senbei is made using wheat flour and is known as nanbu senbei. Whether made from wheat or rice, however, senbei is arguably the most popular type of rice cracker in Japan.
Ginger miso, mentaiko spicy cod roe, octopus, sweet shrimp, squid, peanut, chocolate, coffee miso, oyster and kombu kelp — these are just a few of the tantalizing flavors of senbei that one finds in Japan today. For Hawai‘i residents, these unique flavors of senbei may also be found at HIS Hawai‘i’s Ala Moana store. The travel company got creative during the pandemic in an effort to bring a taste of Japan to Hawai‘i residents. According to Daniel Allen of HIS Hawaii, the company aimed to replicate Michi-no-Eki, roadside stations or rest stops found along Japanese expressways that offer road trippers the opportunity to purchase local foods or regional specialty items such as crafts. Lucky for local taste buds, HIS Hawaii decided to make senbei, crafted by artisans from various prefectures, available to the Hawai‘i market. “We decided to start with senbei because it is an item found all over Japan with many different varieties stemming from various local traditions. It also is relatively shelf stable, lightweight, and above all, delicious,” states Allen.
Where did this delicious snack originate?
Fulfilling the munchies for over a thousand years, senbei’s history reaches back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) China where its characters referred to jianbing. Jianbing means “fried pancake” and resembles more of a crepe/pancake. Still enjoyed in China today as a popular, street food breakfast, one Chinese legend states that jianbing came into being when a military strategist, Zhuge Liang, couldn’t feed his soldiers because military cooks lost their woks. The innovative leader ordered his army’s cooks to mix wheat flour with water and fry them in the shields of soldiers. These fried pancakes quickly gained popularity throughout China. Eventually, a form of these crepes made their way to Japan in 737 AD, the time of Japan’s Asuka period. Although many theories abound regarding senbei’s arrival in Japan, one states that Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) brought the recipe for senbei back with him after journeying to Tang China as part of an envoy. Senbei’s arrival in Japan is documented in a written piece titled “Tajima Kokushocho” (The Book of Tajima Province) and is housed in Nara’s Shosoin. As in China, the first senbei was made from wheat flour and water and then roasted with oil. During the Heian Period, artisans may have also crafted senbei from the New Year’s kagami mochi. However, senbei, as it is known today, had its renaissance during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in present day Soka city, Saitama Prefecture. At the time, townspeople and travelers developed Soka into a busy post town along the Nikko-Kaido Road, a major highway that connected Edo (Tōkyō) with northern provinces. Offering respite and food to weary travelers, including samurai traveling to the Shogun’s capital, many teashops sprung up. A version of the story suggests that at one particular shop, a woman named Osen served rice dumplings to hungry travelers. A samurai patron of her shop noticed a surplus of the dumplings and suggested that she flatten, dry, grill and sell them as rice cakes. Hence the birth of the crunchy, savory snack, “osen”-bei.
Although senbei continues to delight snackers today, its varied shapes, cooking techniques and appealing flavors are excitingly infinite. Whether classic, regional or other, the most common is shoyu senbei. Senbei fans also crunch on classic flavors including black sesame, nori, chili pepper and shrimp. Contemporary flavors include mayonnaise, curry, cheese, or corn potage. For the daring snacker, there is even jibachi senbei, which is actually made from digger wasps. Stingers aside, among many unique choices found at HIS Hawaii is the seafood karaage senbei from Echizen Kaisen Club in Fukui Prefecture. Think famous Echizen sweet, succulent shrimp, squid, or octopus from the Sea of Japan roasted into a disc of freshly caught deliciousness. With the desire to deliver fresh seafood throughout the four seasons, Echizen Kaisen Club’s artisans developed its senbei utilizing the wisdom and skill of traditional fishermen. To preserve the deep, umami flavor, artisans of seafood senbei deep fried the senbei after roasting. In addition to the delicious seafood from Fukui Prefecture, HIS Hawaii also markets “whole oyster” senbei using famous Hiroshima oysters. Yes, a whole oyster baked onto a senbei rice cracker. According to one of Maruichi Shoten’s senbei artisans, creating this unique snack is no easy task, “Oyster is a raw material that contains a lot of water, so when it is made into rice crackers, it is difficult to create a crispy texture. It took me two years to get to the current oyster processing method.” Although HIS is currently out of the oyster crackers, stay tuned, as they may bring them back in December.
Turf rather Surf?
HIS Hawaii also features more “land” inspired senbei choices from Gifu Prefecture. Mixing savory with sweet, these delectable flavors include miso, ginger miso and coffee chocolate miso senbei. Artisans of Inohiro Seikaho located in Hida Furukawa, Gifu have been crafting new flavors for generations. Founded during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in 1908, this Gifu specialty is a product of its time. During that era, transportation was not convenient in the Hida area, thus requiring people to preserve foods such as pickles and miso as much as possible. Hirokichi Inomaru, founder of the company, came up with the idea of using miso, a preserved food, to make sweets. He created the Inohiro Seikaho’s Miso senbei. Says an Inohiro artisan, “At that time, eggs were a luxury food item, and miso senbei were also considered a high-class snack.” Kujukushima Group of Nagasaki Prefecture offers a sweet, caramel senbei crafted from wheat, sugar and peanuts. The unique hexagonal shape of this senbei represents a tortoise, while the peanuts symbolize the 208 scattered islands of Kujukushima off of Sasebo City, Nagasaki. Besides symbolizing the sea around Nagasaki, the senbei artisan from Kujukushima explains, “In Japan, there is an old saying that ‘a crane lives for a thousand years, a turtle lives for ten thousand years.’ We hope that our products will be loved by our customers forever.”
In Japan, Nov. 8 or 9 (date changes every year) is National Senbei and Arare Day. According to the traditional lunar calendar, the date around November 9 is ritto, or the first day of winter. The National Rice and Confectionery Industry Association chose this date to evoke a sense of nostalgia-sitting at the kotatsu with family, enjoying tea and senbei. With both Japan’s Senbei Day and Christmas just around the corner, why not pick up a few boxes of unique, craft senbei? Santa just might appreciate a change from cookies this year.
*Note: Certain senbei sell out quickly. Please check with HIS Hawaii for availability. HIS Hawaii is located at Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 1206. Call 808-983-3373 or visit hishawaii.net for more information.
Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Sōseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tōkyō to a traditional onsen inn in Yamashiro Onsen and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.