Adding crackers to soup is not a phenomenon limited to Western culture. The people of Nanbu, the eastern region of Aomori Prefecture, have enjoyed Senbei-jiru, a hot pot dish with wheat crackers, for the last 200 years.
Regarded as a soul food of Hachinohe City, the heart of the Nanbu region, this hot pot is cooked with a healthy combination of vegetables, meat or fish, and some wheat flour crackers, called Nanbu Senbei. Simmered in the soup, the originally hard and crispy Senbei crackers develop a chewy, spongy texture, resembling fettuccine cooked al dente.
A specialty of the Nanbu region, Nanbu Senbei is a snack made from wheat flour, similar to water crackers or hard tack crackers. The region’s cool summer climate made it difficult to grow the most prized crop in Japan, rice, forcing the farmers to choose wheat or millet as an alternative until the development of a rice variety with more cold tolerance in recent years.
While regular Nanbu Senbei are eaten as it is, there is also a special type dedicated to hot pot cooking. Those crackers are added to the soup alongside other ingredients such as burdock, mushrooms and long green onions. The most popular flavor also contains chicken seasoned with soy sauce. In addition, there are other flavors such as fish Senbei-jiru seasoned with just salt, or horse meat with miso.
Many local people love soup-soaked Senbei. It is often said that the timing is really important when eating the senbei so its neither too hard nor too soft. Senbei is thought to taste the best when it is cooked al dente.
Nowadays, there are more than 120 restaurants that serve Senbei-jiru in Hachinohe. Some restaurants in Tokyo also have Senbei-jiru on their menu. A meal kit with Nanbu Senbei and a pack of broth can be purchased online.
In 2003, a local volunteer group named Hachinohe Senbei-jiru Laboratory started introducing Senbei-jiru to a wider audience outside the city, leading to its national recognition and the rise of Hachinohe City’s profile.