Famous crackers and bean cakes

Senbei are ubiquitous in Japan. Many varieties of the savoury (but sometimes sweet) and crunchy, bite-sized crackers are regional specialties. For that reason (and because they are light and keep well) they are popular as omiyage (obligatory gifts).

Another confection the traveller in Japan inevitably encounters is one made in an iron pan similar to a waffle iron. The sweet has a baked batter exterior that’s filled with red bean paste. These might be served on the street from carts, in coffee shops or in garden tea rooms. Depending on the region or era, these treats are known by many names that often end in yaki meaning baked. They can be round or formed into flowers or maple leaves to reflect the season or shaped like fish.

Like senbei, bean cakes, too, are regional specialties. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that the local variety is famous. That said, in Japan many very famous local things are sometimes unfamiliar as nearby as the next city.

With no great fondness for crackers or cakes of any kind in the first place, I am handicapped by an untrained eye and palate. Unable to distinguish the nuances from memory without sampling each in sequence as in a wine-tasting, I often suspect the same confection is being served us unsuspecting visitors throughout the nation. If my life were at stake I might even bet on it—or maybe not. On one hand, Japan’s is a culture of ubiquitous uniformity; on the other, there is no end to highly nuanced subtlety.

That said, fame or famous means something different to me. For example, the Nanaimo bar (a Canadian dessert square with layers of chocolate and custard over a nut base originating in Nanaimo, British Columbia) at least stepped out of its home town. Its fame spread across a nation, all over North America and made its debut in The Oxford Canadian Dictionary by 1998. Now that is a measure of fame—even rigour. Words, not even ones as pleasing to the tongue as Nanaimo bar, don’t simply waltz into the OCD (which is not to be confused with a disorder of any sort).

The rigour applied by Oxford in permitting entry to new words is a fascinating subject. If interested, check out The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. But I digress–though I suppose it’s not all that far from crackers.

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4 Responses to Famous crackers and bean cakes

  1. Kanako says:

    Hi Lynda-san,

    Your explanation for “omiyage” made me laugh. I am often flooded with “omiyage”s at work especially after long weekend (even normal weekend)… they just bought a lot of snacks or sweets and distribute to anyone. Some people just leave it on our desk without any message. I cannot figure out the purpose of their distribution.

    • Lynda says:

      I’m laughing, too. If you are Japanese and you can’t figure it out, how are the rest of us non-Japanese supposed to catch on? And here we are having anxiety attacks over trying to do the right and proper thing in Japan’s “very difficult” and super polite system.

      Maybe the purpose of their distribution is simply recycling their endless supply of omiyage. (I confess, I have done the same. Left it for hotel maids or as treats for my friend’s cram school.)

  2. Gary Matson says:

    Lynda,

    Well said: “On the one hand, Japan’s is a culture of ubiquitous uniformity; on the other there is no end to highly nuanced subtlety.”

    Gary

    • Lynda says:

      Thank you, Gary. One caveat. “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be in the wrong.” (Oscar Wilde)

      Japan is a mind-bending series of endless paradoxes. Oscar Wilde would have loved Japan.

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