Have you ever wondered why Japanese rice crackers don’t always look the same? That’s because there are actually a number of different types of rice crackers, each with their own shape, size and ingredients. Two such varieties are senbei vs arare rice crackers, both of which are delicious in their own right.
Why are rice crackers so popular in Japan?
Rice crackers are firmly entrenched in the annals of Japanese history, having been eaten there for over a thousand years. However, their first iteration was said to be in China during the Han Dynasty, when they were a type of rice pancake or crepe known as jianbing. These pancakes eventually made it to Japan, specifically in Saitama prefecture, where they were duly called senbei by the Japanese – and as time went on they became the rice crackers we know now.
The popularity of rice crackers can also be attributed to their cultural significance in Japan. You’ll often see rice crackers appearing at festivals, like Hinamatsuri, or ‘Girl’s Day’, a Shinto holiday held on March 3.
Extremely moreish as a snack, rice crackers make for a great finger food and are something that most Japanese people have stocked in their pantry cupboards at home.
What is the difference between senbei and arare crackers?
So how to tell these rice crackers apart? Simple. First off, they differ in appearance. Senbei are a circular cracker, normally flat and shaped like a disc, that can be either sweet or savory flavored. Arare are much more spherical than senbei, and are bite-sized – in fact, they’re the smallest type of rice cracker you’ll encounter in Japan.
They’re each made with a different type of rice too, although this is typically not something you’’ll be able to ascertain just by looking - or even tasting! Senbei are made with non glutinous sticky rice, while arare come from the same sweet rice flour that’s used to make mochi.
What is senbei?
Also known as beika senbei, these crackers are the most traditional type. They’re made from mochi dough which has been flattened out into disks of 5-10cm in diameter and then cooked: some are fried, and some are baked. The latter often use a glazed coating of soy sauce and sugar, making them a little sweeter than other versions.
The savory senbei, however, are where a wealth of different ingredients really come to the fore. Senbei can be flavored with anything from black soybeans, mirin or shrimp to fiery and pungent wasabi. They might be wrapped in a strip of nori seaweed, or mixed in with bonito powder, seaweed flakes or furikake seasoning too.
In fact, senbei crackers should really be split into a few different groups, as the classic senbei are separate from more regional styles of senbei. In Hokkaido, you’ll find white chocolate-covered senbei (‘shiroi koibito senbei’), while Chiba is known for its nure senbei, which is a soft, wet version of the cracker that’s been soaked in soy sauce directly after being grilled.
There are also some rather bizarre senbei on the market in Japan. You can experiment with tako senbei, or ‘octopus crackers’, which involves deep-frying whole squids/octopi within a large flat senbei cracker as a deliciously alternative on-the-go snack.
There’s even the jibachi senbei – wasp crackers – which hail from the village of Omachi and require forest traps to catch the digger wasps that are baked into each cracker. They’re a snack that’s particularly popular with the older generation in the area!
What is arare?
Arare are little rounded bite-sized crackers that are made from cutting mochi rice cakes into little pieces. Taste wise, arare are typically flavored with soy sauce but often involve seaweed, sugar and sesame seeds too, and can be either sweet or salty.
You may also see arare being referred to as okaki, which is a type of Japanese rice cracker that uses the same sweet rice flour as a key ingredient. Arare’s small size has led to other names: the English translation of the word ‘arare’ is ‘hailstones’ – or the rather poetic ‘snow pellets’.
Arare crackers are often mixed together with peanuts and dried beans to add some textured variety to the snack mix. Arare can also come in different colors, most typically white, green, yellow and pink, particularly when the Hinamatsuri festival preparations begin in the early months of the year.
Are Japanese rice crackers healthy?
As they’re made with white rice and don’t contain a source of either protein or fiber, Japanese rice crackers aren’t exactly the most healthy of snacks. That said, there are still ways to make them a little healthier. For instance, opting for rice crackers that are baked will be healthier than their fried counterparts, as there’s less cooking oil involved.
For those attempting to stave off hunger pangs, crunching away on a deliciously flavored rice cracker might be the perfect stop gap between meals. As they don’t contain any gluten, there’s no chance of poor digestion after eating them either.
In Japan, rice crackers are usually served as a snack alongside a fresh cup of green tea or placed in a bowl when visitors come to the house. You can also find rice crackers incorporated into various meals too, particularly as a crunchy topping for salads, soups and rice bowls.
Try Some Japanese Rice Crackers at Home
Japanese rice crackers are commonly found in Asian supermarkets and specialty stores. There are also plenty of senbei rice crackers available at Bokksu Boutique too, like these peppery wasabi senbei shaped like onigiri, or the beautifully packaged sakura-themed haru senbei that are perfect for welcoming the spring season.
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