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Japanese snack giant taps India-born exec to make rice crackers overseas hit

Kameda Seika Co.'s "kaki no tane" rice-based snacks. (Mainichi/Yuhi Sugiyama)

TOKYO -- Piquant and super crunchy "kaki no tane" rice crackers have been a mainstay of Japanese supermarket snack aisles for decades, but the company that manufactures it is hoping to break out of the domestic market and make it a hit overseas too. And the firm is looking to its new India-born vice president and kaki no tane enthusiast Juneja Raj Lekh to lead the charge.

    Kaki no tane (literally "persimmon seeds," for the savory snack's shape) is thought to have been invented by a snack-maker in Niigata Prefecture in 1924. Rice-based snack behemoth Kameda Seika Co. added peanuts to it in 1966 and marketed it as "kaki pea," and the product took off in the late 1980s. In February 2021, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi munched on some kaki no tane on the International Space Station, calling it "space washoku (Japanese cuisine)."

    Kameda Seika announced it had brought Lekh on board as an executive vice president in May 2020. Lekh, 69, had been vice president of sales in overseas markets for Rohto Pharmaceutical Co.

    Kameda Seika Co. Vice President Juneja Raj Lekh speaks during an Oct. 19, 2021 interview in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi/Yuhi Sugiyama)

    Kameda Seika has a long list of hit products, and is considered an overwhelming force in Japan's rice snack market. However, sales of rice-based snacks have plateaued at around 370 billion yen (about $3.26 billion) annually since 2015. Kameda Seika, meanwhile, relies on the domestic market for some 80% of its sales revenue, meaning the company could slowly go from riches to rags if it does not find new ways and new places to grow.

    And to open up the paths to those new places beyond Japan's shores, the firm turned to Lekh.

    Lekh is originally an expert in microorganisms and fermentation. He came to Japan in 1984, and earned a PhD from Nagoya University. In 1989, he joined Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture-based food ingredient maker Taiyo Kagaku Co. as a researcher. There he isolated compounds in tea that help people relax or give them increased protection against cavities -- compounds that are apparently still used in numerous products today.

    In recognition of his achievements, Taiyo Kagaku promoted Lekh to executive vice president in 2003. Seeking new challenges, Lekh moved to Rohto Pharmaceutical in 2014. There, Lekh shifted away from lab work to take charge of the company's foreign enterprises, and zipped around the world from South America to Africa opening new sales channels.

    In this photo provided by Juneja Raj Lekh, he is seen during a business trip to the United States in the early 2000s, when he was a vice president at food ingredient maker Taiyo Kagaku Co.

    "Wheat, which is a staple food across the whole world, is also one of the most prominent allergens," said Lekh, drawing on his long experience in both research and overseas business strategy. "The zero-wheat 'gluten-free' market is growing in the West, and that's a major chance for rice-based snacks."

    And the core of Lekh's hoped-for rice snack revolution is kaki no tane. Lekh himself fell in love with the slightly spicy snack when he came to Japan, and would bring bags and bags of it back to India as souvenirs on visits home.

    "My family and friends in India really like kaki no tane, too. They all smile when they eat some," he said.

    Kameda Seika started selling kaki no tane in India in January 2020, as if to coincide with Lekh joining the firm. The name has been changed to "Kari-Kari" (Japanese onomatopoeia for "crunchy"), though the company has stuck with the tried-and-true combination of the crescent-shaped rice snack and peanuts. However, the rice itself is from India, making the snacks a little harder than their Japanese cousins -- one of a few changes made to adapt to the Indian market.

    Kameda Seika Co.'s "Kari-Kari" snacks, the Indian version of "kaki no tane," are seen in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuhi Sugiyama)

    There are six flavors of Kari-Kari, including chili garlic and wasabi. Each bag retails for the equivalent of about 150 yen (around $1.30), making them relatively expensive for India and something of a luxury snack. Nevertheless, sales for fiscal 2021 are expected to top 100 million yen (about $881,000), and the company hopes that number will grow in fiscal 2022.

    The snacks' success in his homeland provided Lekh with confidence about kaki no tane's potential overseas. He told the Mainichi Shimbun, "In the same way that the California roll came into being when sushi went to the U.S., kaki no tane will evolve even more overseas."

    Kameda Seika has been running a rice and rice snack research center with Niigata Prefecture since the 1950s. The center has accumulated an enormous quantity of technological knowhow, regarding everything from rice flour and rice-derived lactic acid bacilli to low-protein rice.

    "If we spread the word about the attractions of healthy rice snacks, just like things like tempura, they should certainly find acceptance overseas," Lekh said.

    (Japanese original by Yuhi Sugiyama, Business News Department)

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