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Comfort food from Hachinohe – Senbei Jiru

I have heard about this specialty nabe from Aomori, senbei jiru or nabe. Senbei is usually a snack, a round or square shaped cracker flavored with all kinds of extras, such as salt, soy, or sugar and soy. Senbei in a meal? I could not picture soy flavored rice crackers cooked in a steamy pot with vegetables and wondered how it could possibly be any good.

At the most recent of Takase-sensei’s sake benkyokai at Ichibee in Ogikubo, I had a rather unique opportunity to taste both sake and food from Hachinohe, a city that sits near the border of Aomori and Iwate on the Pacific coast. Mutsu Hassen bottles were accompanied with local specialty dishes such as senbei jiru, squid okizuke and other fish caught in the area. Usually at these lectures, you enjoy sake with restaurant’s food. At this wonderful nihonshu otaku joint in Ogikubo, Ichibee, that means a big pot of beef nabe in the winter. So, when about seven people from Hachinohe in addition to the brewer were introduced to the group, everyone was curious what they were up to.

Soon, the sake tasting session turned into a senbei jiru cooking lesson. “This is the special Hokki clam based broth we prepared for today”, Kimura-san in a red apron from the official Senbei Jiru Kenkyusho said. “Let it boil, and break these senbei in four, let it cook for 5 minutes.”, holding up a palm size round wafer like white piece. Naturally, I wondered how this dish started and asked the specialist.

This dish originated about 200 years back during the Edo period. The most northern region of Honshu where it is extremely cold in the winter, they could not grow rice, and wheat was the only grain available in the area. Thus, people made tortilla or chapatti-like flour-based flatbread. The senbei jiru instructor even demonstrated how to make fresh senbei from flour using a special cast iron mold over the stove and the end product tasted and felt just like tortilla.

After five minutes cooking in a steaming broth and sliced leeks, senbei bits held their form without dissolving and when I had my first bite, with my tongue almost burnt, it felt and tasted like pasta. Then I thought of tortilla soup and everything made sense. Steamy soup with lots of vegetables and pasta-like senbei pieces during the snowy cold winter in that part of Japan must make a perfect winter staple dish.

The Hachinohe promotion team brought other dishes like shime saba or marinated mackerel, squid sashimi and squid okizuke. Shime saba was very lightly marinated with vinegar without its flesh turning white like whenever I prepare my own. Taniguchi-san, the chef who prepared the dish said he simply used regular salt and vinegar. I was rather curious about squid okizuke which I have not had before. It looked like they just cut the whole raw squid. And that was the case, I found out. Whole freshly caught squid is marinated in soy base sauce on the fishing boat, including guts, and that’s where oki or ocean come from. I imagine okizuke is somewhat easier to eat than the notorious shiokara, less salty, less slimy and less fishy. I wish Te-chan were there at benkyokai that night so that I could see his face when people said “You can eat this?” pointing at this whole squid.

The other day, I ran into a friend at the gym who is originally from Hachinohe and told her about this unexpected feast from her hometown. “Iinaaaaa” she cried. She said she cannot find good shime saba or okizuke in Tokyo like the ones from home. Then she went on about how senbei jiru is a comfort food for someone like her, something every family has their own recipe for and cooks in their own way. She usually cooks senbei jiru at home with chicken-based broth, yakidofu or grilled tofu and lots of vegetables. As far as the senbei goes, though, she orders them from home since “Nothing comes even close to the real thing from back in Hachinohe”.

Senbei Jiru promotion video. I thought this is pretty funny.

Discussion

4 Responses to “Comfort food from Hachinohe – Senbei Jiru”

  1. The tortilla soup makes it very clear, oishisou! Is it just me or do those senbei look like the “host” in a Catholic mass?

    That vid is hilarious. My mouth is watering…

    Posted by Jocelyn | February 28, 2008, 7:31 am
  2. Hi Jocelyn, It was good to see you yesterday! I was going to ask you about this host thing, but I think I get it. Not I can picture the host in a Catholic mass, but I just picture senbei in nabe, right?

    Posted by Et-chan | March 2, 2008, 1:04 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] is what people in the area used to eat everyday. This is very similar to what I learned about Senbei jiru from Hachinohe. Hatto nabe Mochi cuisine around Ichinoseki is for special occasions, such as [...]

  2. [...] Senbei Jiru – This soup dish with wafer like crackers made of flour from Hachinohe won second place in the 2008 B-1 Grand Prix. Senbei is broken up and added to a steamy pot of soup a few minutes before serving to preserve the al dente texture. [...]

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