Senbei–jiru is a unique dish specific to the Hachinohe area of northern Japan. It is a hearty soup made with either chicken or fish (usually mackerel) and topped with broken pieces of Nanbu senbei, a type of local cracker made from wheat. The word senbei usually denotes a rice cracker in Japanese, but as areas of northern Japan were historically poor in rice production, the local populace had to rely on alternative grains such as wheat or buckwheat.
This dish is versatile and hardy; it is seen as comforting soul food for the people of the area. The most basic version of the soup is made with the ingredients listed below, but most families tend to make the soup with whatever ingredients they have on hand. Ingredients like gobo (burdock root) or ito-konnyaku (yam noodles) that may be hard to find in some countries can readily be swapped out for other root vegetables or omitted entirely.
The most important feature of the soup is the Nanbu senbei (wheat crackers). Sold locally in specialty shops as well as supermarkets, these wheat crackers are made by cooking a dough made of flour, salt, and water in special cast iron molds. Following this recipe here that uses an oven at home will give you a close approximation.
Recipe: Homemade Nanbu Senbei with Traditional Cast Iron Mold
Ingredients (serves 3～4 people):
( ①Long Onion, ②Nanbu Senbei, ③ Cabbage, ④Soy Sauce, ⑤Mirin, ⑥Cooking Sake, ⑦ Salt, ⑧ Sliced Pork, ⑨ Chicken Thigh Meat, ⑩ Yam Noodles (Ito-Konnyaku) ⑪ Instant Dashi, ⑫ Carrot, ⑬ Shimeji Mushrooms, ⑭ Burdock Root (Gobo))
- 6～8 Nanbu senbei, store-bought or homemade (recipe here)
- 50g (2 oz) chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 30g (about 1/4 cup) burdock root (gobo), thinly sliced
- 30g (about 1/4 cup) carrot, thinly sliced
- 40g (about 1/3 cup) cabbage, bite-sized
- 40g (about 1/3 cup) long onion or leek, thinly sliced at an angle
- 20g (about 1/4 cup) yam noodles (ito konnyaku)
- 20g (about 1/4 cup) shimeji (or shiitake) mushrooms, roughly chopped
- 50cc (3.5 tbsp.) soy sauce
- 16cc (1 tbsp.) cooking sake
- 4cc (1 tsp.) mirin (sweet cooking sake)
- 4g (1 tsp.) instant dashi powder or chicken stock powder
- dash salt
- 800cc (3.5 cups) water
(Prepared Ingredients: ① Instant Dashi, ② Nanbu Senbei, ③ Long Onion (green portion), ④ Yam Noodles (Ito-Konnyaku), ⑤ Soy Sauce, ⑥Cooking Sake, ⑦ Mirin, ⑧ Salt, ⑨ Cabbage, ⑩ Long Onion (white portion) ⑪ Shimeji Mushroom, ⑫ Chicken Thigh Meat, ⑬ Carrot & Burdock Root Mix, ⑭ Pork Slices
- Prepare the vegetables and meat.
- Pour 800cc of water into a pot, add the burdock root, carrot, yam noodles, and mushrooms. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Add chicken meat. Reduce to a simmer and skim the surface.
- Once the chicken and vegetables have been almost cooked through, add the hard, white part of the cabbage (reserving the thinner, green part of the leaves).
- Next, add the soy sauce, cooking sake, mirin, and dashi powder to the pot.
- Check the flavoring of the soup, it should taste light at this point as the addition of the Nanbu senbei crackers will make the soup saltier.
- Add the remaining cabbage and bring to a full boil.
- Break the crackers into 3-4 pieces.
- Add the crackers to the soup.
- Last, add the long onions and cook until the crackers are al dente.（Taste and adjust with salt if needed）
- Tip: The senbei crackers should be cooked until slightly soft, overcooking them will result in a mushy cracker.