Really Great Senbei?
When I visited Japan, I acquired a taste, unfortunately, for really good senbei (those crunchy soy-dipped crackers). I haven't been able to find any for sale here in the states. Does anyone have suggestions? Any sources for top-notch imported stuff? Or are there any great american-made senbei?
I'm not talking about pretty good senbei...supermarket senbei like trader joe's or the stuff you find for a couple bucks per bag in asian markets. i mean the artisinal stuff.
You are right that there is a huge difference in quality between industrial and artisanal senbei - although one get also get really good industrial one's.
There is a site selling artisanal senbei from Japanese makers with world-wide shipping.
They also explain the story behind each product and the producer, so that it is interesting to read anyhow.
Just got the following via email from a staunch lurker:
You can find artisinal o-senbei in Japan. The ones I've had shippped
to me (my mom is Japanese) are hand-formed round and rectanglar
patties baked over a wood fire until they develop blisters and
seasoned with artisinal shoyus. If they are wrapped in nori, the
nori is of very high grade and toasted crisp. They are deeply
crunchy and brittle, like the small nori-wrapped rods but much more
so, and robust in rice, soy sauce, and nori flavors. (The more
brittle o-senbei, like you find in a fingerbowl at a bar, are not
gourmet at all. They are trivia.)
Some artisinals also are exceedingly salty, so much so that even my
mom hesitates to eat one. These salty o-senbei are rather soft,
unlike the typical crunchy types. You also can get artisinal
o-senbei that contain various dried seafoods. Most artisinals are
packed in gorgeously decorated metal boxes lined with high-quality,
thick, white corrugated papers. They also have eye-popping prices
being essentially a rice snack. Imagine a corn chip product that you
would buy, say, from a family vendor that has been making them for
generations by hand, frying them in gourmet oils, and seasoning them
with gourmet salts and spices.
You've got to get away from mass market stores to the Japanese shops
and stalls that cater to people expecting to purchase hand made
crackers made from traditional recipes by bakers, not machines.
re: Jim Leff
That said, in countless Japanese B1 floors, one can find a staggering array of artisanal o-senbei which change seasonally, monthly, biannually, and when the wind blows over the village manufacturer. As many of you know, we eat first with our eyes, and in the senbei business, the package, the wrapping, the carton, the box, and the cannister are much, much, much, much more important than anywhere else in the world. Perceived obsolescence even affects the rice cracker arena. It is a competitive field. Even if the senbei doesn't change much, all the externals do.
Yeah, there's a bit of a Bagel Test at work. The easier they are to eat, the more fake they are!
But seriously....bear in mind that there are many variety of senbei. I've had light airy incredible ones in Japan. Also some with a malty/soy aftertaste. One thing's for sure, though...aftertaste should be PURE.
Perhaps it is because I have never had the good stuff, but I have never acquired a taste for senbei, even thought I like most Japanese food. It leaves a very strange aftertaste in my mouth. Is that because I have only had the "cheap stuff"? (specifically i am referring to the ararae style of senbei).
re: Jim Leff
Sembei is perishable; as a result, the competion in Japan insures that it is next to impossible to find great replicas here. Even if you do, you need the corespondingly great green tea like certain Sayama-cha varieties. Then, you need to master the technique of making the green tea and get it down pat. Consequently, I think it's easier to fly to Japan to eat good sembei than it is to get it here.
I've been to the Mitsuwa in NJ. I swear I'm not being snobby on this, but any senbei that's $2-7 for a bag is not going to be the serious, hand-crafted stuff. And that's all these markets sell.
As for the lovely (and expensive) packages, that sounds better. There's a vendor like that in NJ, too, but they sell, alas, senbei that are fancy/authentic/hand-crafted, but not particularly delicious.
The really good stuff is vexingly hard to find...