Zensai - Japanese Snacks and Appetizer Recipes

by Celeste Heiter, Dec 28, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Enjoying a variety of bite-sized foods over cold beers and hot sake is one of the best ways to relax in the company of friends and family. Japanese appetizers run the gamut from blanched soybeans called edamame, and crunchy rice crackers called sembei, to simple steamed shellfish, tiny deep-fried river shrimp, and tofu cubes with soy sauce and bonito flakes.


Any well-stocked Asian market, especially one that specializes in Japanese foods, will carry a wide variety of sembei snacks. These crunchy little rice crackers and tidbits are usually seasoned with soy sauce, some are wrapped in nori, and all are delicious. However, beware that many contain MSG, so read the labels if you're sensitive or allergic.

Other tasty appetizer suggestions:


These tasty young soybean pods are most commonly available in the frozen vegetable section of some supermarkets and many Asian grocery stores. To prepare, follow the cooking instructions on the package.

If you are fortunate enough to find them fresh at a produce market in the late summer months, or you are able to grow your own, remove the fresh pods from the beanstalk, wash them thoroughly and drop them in boiling water for about five minutes, or until tender. When they're done, remove them from the water, drain them and sprinkle lightly with salt if you like. Allow them to cool and serve them in the pods.

Edamame can also be prepared in the microwave. Place 2 cups of soybean pods in a microwave-safe dish, cover and cook on full power for 4 or 5 minutes. Sprinkle lightly with salt, allow them to cool and serve in their pods.

Cucumber stuffed with Crab & Ginger
(18 to 24 pieces)

1 Large cucumber
1/2 cup of sushi rice (see recipe)
1/4 cup lump crabmeat or bay shrimp
1 tbsp wakame seaweed, soaked and drained 1 tbsp pickled red ginger (beni shoga)
These fresh appetizers are attractive and easy to prepare. Wash a whole cucumber and trim off the ends. Slice lengthwise through the rind of one side of the cucumber to expose the flesh and seeds, being careful not to break the under side of the rind. Gently pry the cucumber open and carefully scoop out the seeds.

When the cucumber is completely clean, snugly fill the hollow center along its length with sushi rice, pickled ginger, fine seaweed and bay shrimp or crabmeat.

Squeeze along the length of the cucumber to close the gap and set the filling. Slice crosswise into half-inch rounds and serve on an attractive dish. Depending on its size, each cucumber will yield up to 24 pieces.

Steamed Chilled Vegetables with Miso Dip

Wash and prepare a variety of fresh vegetables including broccoli spears, carrot sticks, fresh asparagus tips, zucchini spears, and whole green beans. Place the vegetables in a steamer basket over a large kettle of boiling water and cover with a tight fitting lid. Steam the vegetables for 4 to 6 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Quickly remove the vegetables from the kettle and immediately immerse in a bowl of cold water. Chill for 2 hours and serve with Miso Dip.

Miso Dip

In a blender or food processor, combine:

½ cup of white miso paste
¼ cup of mild soy sauce
¼ cup of sake or mirin
1 tbsp sesame oil (optional)
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger

Puree until smooth and serve with steamed chilled vegetables.

Steak & Scallion Rolls (32 pieces)

1 pound beef tenderloin, sirloin or tri-tip
1 bunch fresh scallions

Pound or slice paper-thin, one pound of good quality beef (tenderloin, sirloin, or tri-tip) into eight 4" squares. Wash and peel one bunch of fresh scallions and trim to 4". Roll the scallions cigar-style inside the slices of beef. Skewer the beef rolls with toothpicks at 1" intervals. Marinate the beef and scallion rolls for 1/2 hour in a mixture of:

1 cup mild soy sauce
¼ cup mirin
2 tbsp of vegetable oil
2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 cloves finely diced garlic
2 tbsp brown sugar

Grill, bake or broil at 400 degrees for approximately 3 minutes. Baste the beef rolls thoroughly with the remaining marinade and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove immediately from the oven. Slice into 1" pieces and serve either hot or cold with toothpicks still intact.

Shrimp Wrapped in Nori (60 pieces)

1 pound shrimp (60-70 count)
1 package of nori seaweed wrappers

Wash and peel and de-vein one pound of 60 to 70 count shrimp. Skewer each shrimp along its inner curve with a toothpick to keep it from curling. Cut 5 sheets of nori into ten 1"x3" strips and wrap one strip around each shrimp, sealing and securing the ends with a few drops of water. Marinate the wrapped shrimp for 20 minutes in a mixture of:

1 cup mild soy sauce
¼ cup mirin

Remove the wrapped shrimp from the marinade and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool slightly and gently remove the toothpicks, being careful not to tear the nori wrapper. Serve on an attractive dish with a soy dipping sauce:

½ cup mild soy sauce
4 tbsp mirin
1 tsp wasabi paste

Mix thoroughly and serve in small dipping dishes.