Japanese Street Food: Roasted Rice Crackers
If you've already been to the Asakusa district of Tokyo and taken a walk down the semi-covered marketplace to see Sensō-ji temple, there are probably many things that'll make you say to yourself, "that was great, but never again." The massive crush of crowds; tourists, locals, and boys and girls on school trips alike. The endless rows of junk shops selling bargain-basement kimonos, plastic toys, and cheap metal bookmarks—it's the kind of thing that's interesting to see, but only to see once.
The one thing that can get me back there? Freshly roasted senbei—Japanese crackers.
While grilled or roasted sweetened crackers date back to the eighth century in Japan, the type of cracker I prefer—a savory version flavored with soy sauce and mirin and wrapped in nori—has its roots in the Edo period, about 400 years ago. In the Kantō region (the South Easter elbow of the island where Tokyo is located), the crackers are made from regular rice flour, giving them a brittle, crunchy texture.
The senbei-man roasts the crackers by laying a few out along one edge of a long charcoal grill. After a few seconds, he flips them over with long chopsticks, shifting them one position to the right. He then refills the first row with fresh crackers. As the crackers slowly walk their way down the grill, they acquire an even golden-brown color as the grill eventually completely fills up into an assembly-line of marching crackers.
Order a cracker and the hot senbei gets dipped into a sweet soy-based sauce, wrapped in hot crisp nori, and handed over to you for about 100 yen (a little over a dollar).
Crisp, crunchy, savory, and warm, it's an awesome treat that you can't really find outside of Japan save for in packaged form (I also love packaged senbei). If you make it to Tokyo, head to Asakusa to check out the temple, but make sure to stop for a cracker on the way. It's a site worth a repeat visit.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.