What is a Japanese Senbei? A complete guide to Japanese Rice Crackers

What is a Japanese Senbei? A complete guide to Japanese Rice Crackers

You've been browsing Japanese snacks and came across the word Japanese Senbei but do not know what they are? Japanese Senbei are a type of Japanese rice crackers. In this article we'll go over the different flavors, the production processes, and even showcase some lesser known regional versions of senbei!


What are Japanese senbei?


Japanese Senbei Set


Senbei are traditional Japanese rice crackers that are served in many situations. You will often find them with green tea! In Japan, there are different types of rice crackers, and senbei is just one of them.

They are made from joshinko (上新粉, non-glutinous rice) and originally come from China. They were introduced to Japan sometime during the Asuka period (538 AD – 710 AD) or the Tang Dynasty, around the 6th century, and are now one of the oldest still existing snacks in the country.

There used to me different versions, and influences from overseas too. Senbei have been made from wheat flour and potatoes in the past, but also soy sauce-infused batches during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The latter is the version that catapulted senbei to fame.

Nowadays, it has a lot of flavorings, and we’ll go through some of the most popular ones further down.

Senbei is a snack that can be both, sweet (when coated with zarame sugar for example) and savory (with shrimp, mirin or nori as typical toppings).


When were Japanese senbei created?


Japanese Senbei Arragement


Although it was just mentioned that senbei was introduced to Japan during the Tang Dynasty, the origin of this cracker can be traced back further. Some early traces place it to the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 8 BC). They used to be a luxury reserved to the Chinese court, only eaten on special occasions.

Still today, a lot of theories exist about the exact origins of the senbei. Probably the most famous available theory is the one about a woman going by the name of Osen. She is said to have created the senbei after cooking lefter over dango into senbei by flattening them and roasting the paste.

The classic salt senbei got popular very quickly since it could easily be made with leftover rice, which farmers had an abundance of. It was therefore also considered a low-class snack. But quickly, people started to glaze the basic version with ingredients like soy sauce, or other seasonings, making it more gourmet. This is how it turned into the rice cracker we know today.

A lot of renowned stores that are making senbei today date back to the Edo period and appeared with the popularization of the senbei in 1645.


What does senbei mean in Japanese?


Jpanese Senbei list


In Japanese characters, senbei is written: 煎餅. It can be translated as rice cookie; Japanese cracker; wafer.

The word is made of 2 separate kanjis: 煎 and 餅. 煎 here is read “sen” and can be translated as broil; parch; roast; boil. The other kanji, 餅, pronounced “bei” here, is translated as mochi rice cake and for example also used for the classic treat mochi.



What are the main types of senbei?


Soy Sauce Senbei


There are many types of senbei. A more extensive list will be provided at the end of this article. But here, we’ll start with 5 of the main types that you can find. They all fit into 3 categories: classic senbei, regional senbei, and other senbei. Within each category, multiple types of senbei exist, each one with its own diverse flavor.

  • Ika (イカ, squid): In the seafood selection of senbei, we have the ika-sen, made by baking a piece of squid onto the rice cracker’s surface. 
  • Kuro Goma (黒ゴマ, black sesame): Black sesame senbei are made from flour and sesame seeds. It’s very crispy and comes with a lovely crunch.
  • Seaweed (のり, nori): This type of senbei is toasted and wrapped in a thin sheet of dried nori seaweed and sometimes. You may also find it springled with furikake, a Japanese seasoning consisting of nori seaweed, sesame seeds, and a dried fish.
  • Shōyu (醬油, soy sauce): Shōyu is the most common senbei flavor in Japan. To make this variation, producers brush soy sauce over the crackers as they toast over a flame, which gives it a notable umami flavor.
  • Togarashi (唐辛子, red chili pepper): This spicy senbei cracker is thickly coated in red pepper flakes and powder after toasting. If you like spicier food, this is the one!


Togarashi Senbei


What does senbei taste like?



This is a very good question. What does senbei taste like? Well, of course it depends on the flavor. However, this is what can be said about the senbei: the combination of sweet and salty is superb. It makes for a perfect snack and has a great crunchy texture.


What are Japanese rice crackers called?



This question is often asked, and might be confusing considering you now know that senbei are rice crackers. However, there are more than one type of rice crackers in Japan. Senbei is one of the most popular, along with arare and okaki! 


What is the difference between senbei and arare?


Japanese Arare


Let’s compare senbei and arare  (あられ, which is named after graupel "snow pellets"). The difference between both is the size and the ingredients.

While it was mentionned that senbei are made from non-glutinous rice called uruchimai (うるち米), arare is made from glutinous rice. Senbei are often disk-shaped while arare usually come in bite size pellets. 


What Is the difference between senbei and okaki?


Japanese Okaki


Now, let’s compare senbei and okaki: both are two types of popular Japanese rice crackers with a couple of key differences. Okaki are made using sweet rice flour (mochiko もち米). Senbei are large and flat disks, whereas okaki are smaller and puffed. Arare, mentioned above, are an even smaller type of okaki made.


What are common senbei varieties?


Usuyaki and Atsuyaki Senbei


Usuyaki and Atsuyaki senbei


Usuyaki (薄焼き) means lightly roasted, and atsuyaki (厚焼き) means deeply roasted. These are the most classic senbei types that you can find, and are simply seasoned with salt.


Nori Senbei


Japanese Nori Senbei


After roasting the rice cracker, the nori senbei is glazed with soy sauce and topped with nori sheet. It’s a good combination of sweet and savory. 


Zarame (ザラメ) Senbei


Zarame Senbei


This senbei is lightly covered with sugar. The crystals will give some additional texture to the cracker and a perfect amount of sweetness. 



White Sugar Senbei


White Sugar Senbei


Here, the preparation method is slightly different. The rice is squished together, giving the senbei a rugged surface and lovely texture. 


Age Senbei


Japanese Age Senbei


Typically, senbei are prepared in an open flame grill, but age senbei (揚げせんべい) are deep-fried.


Blackbean Senbei


Kuromame Senbei


Also called kuromame senbei (黒豆せんべい), it’s a perfect picnic snack.

In addition to those common types of senbei, every prefecture, nearly, has its own local type of senbei. Let’s go over some regional senbei varieties.


What are regional senbei varieties?


Nure Senbei


Nure Senbei


Nure (ぬれ) means wet in Japanese. Contrary to the popular types of crackers, this senbei is chewy and soft. It’s got a nice soy sauce taste. In their preparation, they are dipped in soy sauce right after being roasted, which allows the sauce to be soaked inside! 

Prefecture: Chiba, Niigata


Soka Senbei


Soka Senbei


Soka senbei is believed to be one of the oldest varieties in Japan. This is the one that was mentioned in the legend from Miss Osen. It’s simple and savory. Although typically seasoned with soy sauce, it’s also available with miso, sesame and more!

Prefecture: Saitama


Tansan Senbei


Tansan Senbei


Tansan senbei is a variant of sweet senbei. You may think of wafers after trying one. Actually tansan (炭酸) means carbonation (such as carbonated water). The reason for that name is that the senbei is made with naturally carbonated water in the mountains near a hotspring area in Hyogo.

Prefecture: Hyogo


Deer Senbei


Japanese Deer Senbei


Yes, deer, the animal. They are the symbol of Nara city, and have a park just for them. This senbei is not necessarily designed for us humans, but is comestible. It is a senbei that is specially made for deer.

In the Kansai region, Nara is famous from its temple, Todaiji, and Nara park. Both are popular with deers that come down from the mountains in the morning and walk amongst the tourists all day long before heading back. You can get this senbei from many local vendors and feed it to the deers.

Prefecture: Nara


Nanbu Senbei


Nanbu Senbei


This is an original senbei as it’s made with flour. They are on the sweeter side and what makes it very tasty is the fact that it’s not too sweet. You’ll usually find it sprinkled with sesame seeds or some nuts. 

Prefecture: Aomori, Iwate


Kawara Senbei


Kawara Senbei


Another senbei from Hyogo prefecture, Kawara senbei. The word kawara (桑らせんべい) means roof tile, and through its shape gave its name to this senbei. This one has a similar texture to biscuits and can be easily enjoyed with a cup of coffee or tea.

Prefecture: Hyogo, Kagawa


What are some other types of senbei?


We went over some classic flavors as well as regional specialties. Now the world of senbei si a vast one, and there are some types that don’t really fall into any of those categories. We’ll introduce a couple of them here.  However, they are more original and don’t come in the classic shape nor taste! 


Seafood Senbei


Seafood senbei


Seafood senbei can be made with squid, octopus, and shrimp. They are always made from fresh seafood, giving them strong flavors. They are not overprocessed, which makes it even better. Producers always aim to keep the umami of the seafood. 

To make it very crispy, it’s being deep-fried right after the roasting process. They’ll also add some glazing to enhance flavors and match well with seafood. 


Hone Senbei


Hone Senbei


Hone senbei (骨せんべい) is made from deep-fried leftover fish bones. It’s a savory and calcium-rich snack. You’ll often find it at izakaya restaurants, paired with some alcohol. 


Shirasu Senbei

Shirasu シラス or whitebait is a type of very small fishes. The fish are flattened and cooked in a fry pan before being turned into a senbei by mixing them it with rice! 


Shirasu Senbei

Now it's time to get you some senbei to try at home! Check out our Japanese Snacks Box where we regularly feature some of the most delicious regional senbeis from Japan!