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I have a theory, long-held though never verbalized, until now. I think I must have been a shoujo (Japanese girl) in a past life. Ever since I can remember, I seem to have a desire for all things Japanese—the language, the culture, the art, and of course—the food. Sashimi, soba, sushi. Oh my, I get cravings for these dishes so often, they make my head spin and my mouth water.

Years ago, I remember introducing my ornery older sister to Japanese food. I urged her to try some tuna sashimi with a dot of wasabi. A rather substantial dot, it turned out. She thought I was going to murder her (modus operandi—food poisoning)! But after a few more bites and samples from the menu, she was a convert. Since then, I’ve won over quite a number of non-believers to eating Japanese, and I plan to recruit more.

In summer of this year, I was on a flight that had a stopover at Narita airport. The three-hour wait gave me time to browse through the shelves at a shop chockful of Japanese treats. There was mochi with a dizzying variety of fillings, fish-squid-beef jerkies, strange-looking candies, lovely delicate matcha, and a rediscovered treat: senbei.

Senbei are rice crackers gone Japanese. There is a wide variety of senbei, they can be savory or sweet, flat or tubular, bite-size or in cracker discs. Some imitate sushi, wrapped snug in a square of nori sheet.

The ones I bought were tubular, individually packaged, with 6 flavors to a bag. These are addicting! The subtle taste of the rice cracker is a good base for adding flavors—and what yummy flavors—shoyu dipped, wasabi coated, sprinkled with chili flakes and sesame seeds, or tucked into nori. Crisp bites flooded the mouth with flavors: salty-roasted, caramel-sweet from the soy sauce, or a whiff of sea from the nori. The pink candied variation in the photo above was tinged with rose-infused sugar.

That summer day, I curled up in bed with my bag of senbei and a book, Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki. Like most things Japanese, it was an inspired combination.


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