Senbei (rice cracker) (煎餅)

Senbei (煎餅) is a kind of food made from flour. It often has a thin shape.

In Japan, a senbei is usually a kind of baked pastry in a thin form.

In the People's Republic of China, it means a kind of food made by mixing flour (of wheat, millet, mung beans, etc) with water, then spreading and baking the batter on a hot iron plate, which resembles Japanese 'issen-yoshoku' (an old type Japanese snack resembling a crepe, which is often seasoned by Worcester sauce and topped with finely chopped spring onion).

Outline
The original meaning in the People's Republic of China of the character '餅' (which, in Japan, is read as 'mochi' or 'hei' or 'bei' depending on use and means a rice cake) is the whole range of foods made by mixing with water the flour of wheat, millet, mung beans and the like, then being kneaded and formed into a flat shape. That is why the kanji form of 'senbei' contains the character '餅' despite the fact that mochi, which is a cake of pounded glutinous rice, is not used for making senbei in Japan.

Similarly, '煎' (sen) in China means to grill something on a hot iron plate, and does not mean to decoct medicinal herbs as it does in Japan. Therefore, '煎餅' (jianbing) in China is a food made by baking the batter of flour (such as of wheat) and water on a hot iron plate. Another name for jianbing in China is 薫火. These days snacks such as Shandong jianbing and Tianjin jianbing which are prepared in a method similar to that of issen-yoshoku, are still made in China. Japanese okonomiyaki (savory pancake with various ingredients) is regarded as one of these 'jianbing' type foods, and is sometimes called '日式雜菜煎餅' (Japanese-style chap chai jianbing). In contrast, there is such a case as the Japanese fried senbei and similar snacks which are phonetically transliterated as 'xianbei' (仙貝). Chinese senbei, of whatever sort, is soft in texture and can be rolled or bent when eaten.

Japanese senbei are a type of snack which are thin, crispy and are breakable when force is applied to them.
Senbei are one of the typical Japanese snacks eaten between meals, but are declining in popularity in recent years and are being replaced by other snacks such as potato chips

Types

There are three main types of senbei in Japan; namely one made from wheat flour and eggs, one made from rice and one made from starch such as that of potatoes. In addition, some foods which have a similar appearance or texture, for instance, deep-fried instead of baked or made from different materials, are also called senbei.

Wheat flour senbei has been made mainly in the Kinki region since olden days. The main ingredients include wheat flour, sugar and eggs, and this type of senbei is often sweet in taste and is close to biscuits and 'kasutera' (a Japanese-style sponge cake originally imitated from that of Castella in the 16th century). Therefore, it is sometimes called amami-senbei (sweet senbei). One of the best known of this type is kawara-senbei (senbei shaped like a Japanese traditional roof tile), and there are other types made from rice powder such as Yatsuhashi (a specialty confectionery in Kyoto). Amami-senbei is part of the tradition of To-gashi (唐菓子: Chinese sweets), and this is said to be the origin of senbei.
In Kyoto, there is a senbei which is made from wheat flour, eggs (which may have been added in later years) and sugar and is called 'karaita' (唐板) or 'karaita-senbei.'

Senbei made from rice is also called beika-senbei (米菓煎餅), which has been made in the Kanto region since olden days under the name of senbei. Often it is savory, being seasoned with soy sauce or salt. It is a rice snack made from uruchimai (ordinary cooking rice) - by crushing or pounding cooked uruchimai, forming it flat into individual pieces and then grilling them. In the Kansai region, this type of senbei is often called by such a collective name as 'okaki', grouping it with kakimochi (thin cracker type) and arare (small cube type) both of which are made using glutinous rice. As illustrated by the name age-senbei which refers to deep-fried senbei made from glutinous rice, it is evident that uruchimai is not the only material for making senbei at present.

Ebi-senbei (shrimp senbei), which is a local specialty of the Chita peninsula in Aichi Prefecture, is one of the examples of senbei made from starch such as that of potato. This is made by grilling the mixture of potato starch and dried seafood such as fish and shrimps. Basically it has been a savory food, but at present, there is a number of variations in flavors such as wasabi, curry and kimchee.

In the Kanto region, there is a number of senbei shops which specialize in making and selling beika-senbei. Not many such senbei shops, however, are found in the Kansai region, where senbei is mainly sold in the shops where okaki and arare are the main items sold, which illustrates a major difference in the selling style between eastern and western Japan.

In areas such as Kyushu, 'senbei' is sometimes pronounced 'senpei' using a p-sound. Some such examples include Niwaka-senpei, Kujukushima-senpei and Yu-senpei. In some cases, 'senbei' means those seasoned with soy sauce or salt and 'senpei' refers to sweet ones.

History

In Japan, the word '煎餅' first appeared in the literature of around 737 in the collection of Shoso-in Treasure House. In this case, however, '煎餅', which can be pronounced senbei, is actually read as 'irimochi' meaning a snack made by caking wheat flour with oil, which is different from the present-day senbei.

There is a well known story of a time much closer to the present in which 'senbei' is derived from an incident in which an old woman named 'Osen', who was running a dumpling shop in Soka-juku (present Soka City), the second relay station from Nihonbashi, Edo on the Nikko-kaido Road, started to make and sell a different form of dumpling taking advice she received one day from a samurai who told her, 'How about making those dumplings flat and grilling them?'

This story, however, is also said to have been created by a reporter of a national newspaper in order to make Soka-senbei better known.

Farmers living in and around Soka-juku used to make a kind of snack eaten between meals - making balls of crushed cooked rice, which were then dried, sprinkled with salt and grilled, which they called 'katamochi'. As Soka-juku developed as a relay station on the Nikko-kaido Road, this salty senbei was sold more to travelers and became widely known everywhere. Later, people started to flavor senbei with soy sauce which was produced in an area alongside the Tone-gawa River (Noda City, Chiba Prefecture), and this indeed seems to be the origin of today's Soka-senbei.