Monday, February 2, 2009

Togarashi (Cayenne) Sembei

In order to fulfill the notion that I'm doing this blog to sample new things, I have to stop showering myself with new flavors of KitKat and try some things which are more than simply the same main character cast in a different, but very similar play. I'd also like to stop eating so many sweets so I picked up this package of sembei at the local 99 yen store. It won me over with its promise of cayenne pepper hotness even though I am not a fan of either sembei (rice crackers) or nori (seaweed paper).

This sembei is made by a company named Kameida Seika, which makes a wide variety of sembei-based snacks and is the biggest maker of rice crackers in Japan. The company was started in the 1940's, but has since been reorganized several times and no longer bears much a resemblance to the business that started it all which was co-owned by a farmer. Like many food manufacturers in Japan, they are looking to diversify and expand their product line in order to increase sales despite the falling birthrate, and they hope to offer sweets and health foods in the future rather than mainly focusing on rice-based snacks.

On the company's web site, they mention that these are especially good in winter, presumably because the cayenne chili flavor will heat you up. Since it is winter, I guess I picked a good time to try these.

The packaging for these crackers is a brilliant example of the convenient, but over-the-top packaging in Japan. The crackers are each individually wrapped, placed in a plastic tray and then wrapped in a plastic wrapper. This keeps each cracker in great shape and allows you to leave the main bag gaping open without any fear of allowing the remaining crackers to go stale, but I frankly feel guilty about all that plastic.

The crackers look great. They are shiny, slightly red tinted, and partially wrapped in a crisp square of nori. Once liberated from their individual plastic prisons, they smell slightly of soy sauce and cayenne, though the cayenne has a bit of a tomato scent to it. You can also smell the seaweed if you sniff the part with nori on it.

The texture of the crackers is very crunchy, with some flaky areas on the surface where they have bubbled up during baking. It's very satisfying from a texture point of view. When you bite into it, it cracks off easily, but the nori doesn't tear very well alone the line of your bite. The first thing you really get hit by taste-wise is the seaweed, soy sauce and a fishy taste. This is followed by some cayenne pepper heat. The second bite gives you more of the flavor of a classic rice cracker. This flavor is hard to describe if you've never had sembei, but if you have had it, you'll know exactly what I mean. All rice crackers carry this taste no matter what flavoring has been applied to them.

The ingredients include rice, soy sauce, sugar, seaweed, hot pepper paste, mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine used in cooking), and seafood extract powder. This explains pretty much the entire range of flavors in the cracker. Personally, I could do without the seafood extract powder as I don't like overtly fishy flavors. There are 11 crackers per bag and there are 215 calories for the entire bag (about 20 calories per cracker) so this wouldn't be a too fattening snack, particularly since one is unlikely to eat an entire bag at once.

I probably wouldn't buy these again because, while I don't hate these, I don't love them either. I think they are very well made and enjoyable, but I don't think they suit my tastes. I love the heat, but not the fish or seaweed flavors, which I can certainly tolerate without difficulty, but find distracting. If you're a fan of all those flavors, these are definitely worth sampling. I finished off the bag, but I also pulled off the nori wrappers on them to do so.


Kelly said...

I love these, but i usually get them in a mixture of other crackers. I don't like them with pepper though, without is better as i can't stand hot foods.

My favourite is kotsubukko, that funny round cracker with bumpy edges. I just love those! I can eat a family pack by myself hahaha ;)

Nice to see you doing other food reviews. I think the internet is swamped with kit kat and choccy reviews, but the other kinds of japanese snacks are interesting, and it's nice to see whats new in Japan seeing as i'm not there. :)

Orchid64 said...

I always mean to do more of this sort of thing, but the KitKats and Tirols do constantly beckon with their glamorous wrappers and oddball flavors. It doesn't help that my husband is squeamish about any sort of sembei or savory Japanese foods so I know I'm in for finishing whole bags myself if I buy such things (and it takes me some time to eat them all). Also, honestly, the more traditional food reviews generate less interest than the Westernized items that I write about.

I adore hot and spicy food. Generally speaking, most hot Japanese food isn't hot enough for me. The only thing that comes close are the habanero rings, but even then I don't get a buzz except from the cumulative effect of all that heat. ;-)

Thanks for your comment!

Kelly said...

I just saw these Yuzu Pepper Kit Kat on ebay and thought of you! Since you like both, i wonder how you'd feel about them combined!

Kelly said...

ooops, link would help!

Amy said...

Although I'm over a year late in posting, I love those crackers! I can't handle spicy things that well, but if you get a bag of normal ones that you can't finish off, feel free to send it right on over ;)