In Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Market, street vendors sell seafood in every form imaginable: on skewers, in sandwiches, over rice, and, of course, raw. One of them, a small stand in the outer market, has become an online sensation for turning seafood like raw shrimp into massive rice crackers. They’re made by pouring batter on a griddle press, then adding on whole shrimp. When the grill is shut, the shellfish are preserved like fossils.
Across Japan, street vendors sell giant seafood senbei with scallop, crab, octopus, and fish. More recently, they started showing up in Sydney, Australia, and Bangkok, Thailand. New York City has them now, too.
Esteban Valenzuela sells a version of the street snack at Kraken Senbei, a small stand that has been popping up at the Japanese food festival Japan Fes since August. The chef, who is Chilean, used to sell hot dogs at weekend markets across the city. He switched to octopus senbei this summer after seeing videos of the crackers online. He liked that the preparation was a performance.
Last weekend, Valenzuela stood over a griddle press at Japan Fes on the Upper West Side. The outdoor market was slammed, but customers stopped to watch, and listen, as he poured batter and baby octopus over the grill. (Lobster “scream” when submerged in boiling water. It’s nothing compared to the sound of an octopus being flattened into a cracker at 400 degrees.)
Every few minutes, he trimmed the edges of the grill to reveal a square cracker. “I wasn’t sure if people would like the taste,” he says, “but at markets, the most important thing is how it looks. Can you Instagram it?”
Fair enough. Valenzuela makes his senbei with baby octopi, not shrimp, because they are easier to preserve during a long day at the market, he says. The tiny creatures are marinated overnight and then dipped in potato starch right before cooking. The shrimp in Tokyo might come out looking like fossils, but these ones are more like Rorschach tests. The crackers cost $12 each.
The flavor falls somewhere between a shrimp cracker and a potato chip — and then you taste the octopus. When an eight-legged sea creature is smashed like a panini, and cooked, it takes on the consistency of beef jerky. The taste of soy sauce is front and center.
Valenzuela has one more pop-up scheduled before he retires Kraken Senbei for the season. You can find his crackers at Japan Fes, which next takes place on Astor Place, between Lafayette Street and Broadway, later this month.