Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Iwatsuka Shirabe Sembei

Recently, I did an interview with a young woman who needed to talk to an established blogger for part of a senior project at university and I used the word "sembei" with her assuming that she'd know what it meant. I thought that sembei (or "rice cracker" in English) was one of those Japanese words like "sushi" or "karaoke" that had infiltrated American culture such that its meaning was known. Reading food sites that love to toss around a much more esoteric Japanese word, umami (savory or meaty), has perhaps mislead me into thinking Japanese food vocabulary is more pervasive than it really is. The fact that sembei is not a household word back home was brought home by the fact that my friend Shawn also did not know what it mean, and he reads cooking blogs.

That was a bit of a lesson for me in not assuming the words I toss around are going to be understood by everyone and that I need to take care to explain in English for new, infrequent, or selective readers. I don't want to appear to be one of those people who blithely tosses out words in Japanese to show off my language skills (which frankly are not worth any sort of showy display, believe me) or assuming everyone operates from the same experiences as me.

Getting back to the topic at hand, which is this Iwatsuka sembei. This was the second bag of rice crackers that I opted to sample when I found a sale going on at Okashi no Machioka. That sale was two bags for 250 yen. I chose this not knowing what "shirabe" was. In fact, after quite a bit of searching, I still don't know what it is. I can say that the ingredients listed for this are: Non-glutinous rice, vegetable oil, sugar, starch, glucose, soy sauce powder, salt, seasoning and, caramel coloring. Incidentally, the company that made this, Iwatsuka Seika, started out as a manufacturer of caramel syrup starch.

I can also say that "shirabe" in Japanese appears to have several different meanings based on my fruitless searches. It is a type of drum. It also seems to be some sort of pervy porn comic book (manga) name as I kept turning up the same result which showed some barely dressed woman displaying her backside. If someone knows the food-related meaning of "shirabe", I'd appreciate a word in the comments.

One thing I did come across again and again in my searches was the fact that many Japanese bloggers mentioned this sembei in the same breath as the "Happy Turn" sembei which I reviewed previously. This sembei has a similar vinegar-like flavor, though it seems coupled more prominently with a somewhat fishy flavor. It's also a salty and sweet mixture with the sweetness hitting your tongue at the end.

These are very good, though I think I liked the Happy Turn 200% better for its more intense flavor. That being said, these were excellent value with 36 crackers (18 packs of 2) for only 125 yen ($1.40). The crackers are on the smallish side at about 6 cm x 3.5 cm (2.3 in. x 1.4 in.), but one packet is enough for a satisfying little nibble or to fulfill a crispy, salty snack craving. They're only 31 calories per packet as well so they're a pretty low calorie salty treat. I'd definitely buy them again, particularly if I found them on sale.

Though Iwatsuka's main line of products is more family and adult oriented, they do have a cutesy mascot (a pink bear?) that you can download some pdf files for including stationary and a papercraft envelope, a calendar, postcard designs, and desktop pictures.


Anonymous said...

Shirabe has always meant investigation or examination to me. I looked it up in the dictionary and its secondary definition is a melody. Maybe the word Shirabe on the package is still apart of the brand name?

Ame Otoko said...

Ah, I too hope someone leaves a comment about what shirabe refers to. Since I received senbei as a parting gift once having never tried it before, I love it for the nostalgia it gives me and the same texture and (usually) lovely flavour that I assume you enjoy as well.

Anonymous said...

I think after living in Japan (or any country probably) it's hard to know what has and hasn't infiltrated English - I often get the same "huh?"

Anonymous said...

I do the same thing when chatting with my friends, other bloggers, even family. Many times I got a "what is a Sembei"?

I do this with other things as well, food, fashion, etc.. I also always assume everyone can pronounce Hermes as well, not exactly the same as food but.. KWIM?

I remember when I was a child, I used to eat this trail mix with my mother, and she LOVED rice crackers, because they were always low in calories..

We used to always eat Kamedaseika Spicy Rice Crackers with Peanuts, the trail mix had almonds, coconut.. I remember we used to get them at this super that had barrels of bulk foods... I can't remember the name though..

Do you remember when Quaker came out with those rice puffs? hehe

Katie said...

Hi! I enjoy reading your blog. At least in the U.S., the word 'umami' has become prominent among foodies over the past few years, to the point where it appears in mainstream dictionaries of the English language. So a food blogger who refers to umami may not necessarily know much about Japanese cuisine or language. I've heard and read several news stories over the past few years describing umami as a newly discovered/proposed basic taste to be added to the familiar list of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness.

Anonymous said...

The States need to figure out how to make a bag of snack-food have only 31 cals! That's why I love Asian foods - so much healthier than here!!

Orchid64 said...

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment, and to try and help me out with the meaning of "shirabe".

I do wonder if Ashley's reply has some of the essence of the meaning in it. Maybe it means a "melody" (or mix) of flavors. I've seen the words "shirabe" associated with other foods, so I don't think it's a brand name, though it certainly could be!

kamabokoclub said...

Stem - Shirabe
Te form - Shirabete
Verb - Shiraberu

Meaning - To check, investigate

Orchid64 said...

Thanks, kamabokoclub. My husband gave me the same definition, but I think the food meaning has to be different since that meaning doesn't fit with food... or at least I can't think of how it would fit. ;-)

I appreciate the effort though. :-)

ebidebby said...

I think you are on the right track with melody. I've seen a couple of other things (sake and plums) with shirabe in the title, too. It seems to be a poetic expression, like a flavor melody in your mouth. :D Sometimes, I see the kanji 調 used.

nyarome said...

The package label reads "aji shirabe". "Aji" means taste, and "shirabe" means "melody". So the name implies the various taste "notes" that can be enjoyed when consuming this sembei