“Care for some poopy senbei?”
Having only met the guy offering me something questionable a few hours before, stalling for a response was automatic.
He pointed to a small pile of rounded, semi-thick, stick-like objects sitting on a tissue that looked like, well, poop!
Were they edible? Was this a trick? Had I been plopped into a new universe by mistake? This last theory wasn’t far off having arrived in Japan less than 24 hours before and now getting oriented at my new workplace.
My fresh coworker piped up in his unmistakable Kiwi tone, “Help yourself! Don’t be shy, mate.”
Showing up in Japan with zero knowledge of Japanese was perhaps unwise. “Poopy” was well known but “senbei” was a mystery. Unsure of what I might be sticking in my mouth, since that seemed what I was supposed to do, I hesitated again.
But then my adventurous side took over. Eating jellied pigs blood, intestine, and jellyfish in Thailand before coming to Japan were memorable. Drinking collected rain water from massive jugs along with the resident floaty green and pink bits for three months hadn’t knocked me sideways, yet. A bite of an odd blob or two of whatever was lying on the table would be a-okay.
Gingerly grasping a piece of “poop”, it felt hard, knobbly and light! Lifting the stalk towards my teeth, I slowly bit down and…
Wow! The little stick exploded with a crack and filled my mouth with deep sugary delight. Having a sweet tooth for life, this Japanese snack would become one of my favorites.
What exactly did you eat?
The real name for my co-worker’s “poopy senbei” is karintou. Size, texture and taste vary with brands but dark brown, high crunch, sweet pleasure are ever-present.
Ingredients on a recently consumed package (see the Aeon brand below) include flour, brown sugar, white sugar, rice oil, Japanese syrup, sesame, shortening, yeast, salt and malt. Yuuuu-my!
An informal review
During our last trip to Japan in early 2014, I brought back some poopy senbei to write about. It wasn’t until after inhaling the package that I discovered the photographic evidence was terribly unappetizing.
My Japanese relatives then mailed me three brands for my research. A food photography blog helped get treats from the first bag looking edible. And then the remaining bags were rapidly ingested during sleep-deprived periods where I was as zany as a caged bat. This left me with only photo ops of the empty bags.
- Bag 1 – Brand: Aeon, TopValu; special feature: fried in rice oil
The first taste of my favorite Japanese snack after far too long had to be crunched and munched quickly. If I could choose only one word to describe the experience, it would be “sweet”. Straight up, in your face, slightly cheap, sweet.
This is by no means a negative review. Aeon’s TopValu brand ranges from organic food to beer to Glamatical. It’s often a less expensive option compared to name brands and this brown sugar treat is no exception.
- Bag 2 – Brand: Tokyo Karintou; special feature: honey flavor
Hmmm… this tastes like honey… mmm…. it’s good…. mmm… I like it.
In my haste to gobble up this bag of snackies, I missed the little honey bee and the large, golden swirls in the background. When the honey flavour persisted, I took a closer look at the packaging.
This brand was lighter in texture and crunch than bag 1. The honey flavour was just enough to say, “Hi!” but not overpower the introduction. Well done!
- Bag 3 – Brand: Tokyo Karintou; special feature: double coated
Knowing that this would be the last bag of karintou for an unknown period didn’t stop me from diving in and making no attempt to savour the experience. Exhausted, hungry and frayed at both ends, this treat was going to be utilitarian.
Eating bags of karintou back to back made for an unintentional taste test and this last bag flew high about the others. The sweetness was perfectly balanced. Bitter notes firmly backed up the sweet to create a fully developed flavour. The crunch was the same – neither too strong nor too crumbly. There was no powdery, gluey aftertaste. The obvious differences compared to the previous bags made me pay attention, slow down and really enjoy what was left.
And the winner is….
My glowing review of bag 3 doesn’t mean you have to hunt it down. I recommend eating any and every brand you can get your paws on. Differences were not discernible until eating three bags side by side. Before that, they were enjoyed for what they were.
By the way, if you are health conscious/squeamish, stay away from the nutritional information. You have been warned.
Have you tried a snack in a new land that turned out to be something you never expected? Have you tried poopy senbei and love, love, love it?