Real Fake Food

By | June 19, 2014

I don’t speak or read Japanese, so when I traveled alone in Tokyo I was at a loss to communicate. As a result, I quickly came to appreciate the fake food displays in restaurant windows—menus presented as three-dimensional objects. Just pick and point.

Sampuru, or food samples as they’re known in the restaurant business, are true to life and beautiful in an uncanny sort of way. Fascinated by the contradiction between real food and forgery I tracked down fake food shops in Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo’s restaurant supply district. In one small shop after another on both sides of a bustling narrow lane every imaginable food item was exhibited in brightly lit windows and display cases. I found individual pieces, like a fillet of grilled fish, complete meals presented in bowls and on plates, and glassware filled with mock drinks. In one example a fork wrapped with spaghetti was frozen in mid air to demonstrate how to eat the starchy tendrils.

After wandering in and out in awe of the array, I singled out two ice cream cones that I wanted to buy: a rounded scoop of dark chocolate atop a patterned sugar cone and a strawberry soft ice cream swirl rising from the fluted edge of a more decorative waffle cone. The pink spiral ends in a wispy curlicue, reminiscent of a graceful stroke of a calligraphic brush.

An assortment of nigiri-zushi also came home with me: flat pieces of shrimp, tuna, salmon, and octopus resting atop oblong mounds of vinegared sushi rice. In some samples thin strips of black nori seaweed tether the fish and rice and in others wider sheets of nori encase the mound of rice and hold smaller ingredients in place, like the tiny yolk of a quail’s egg that sits atop an orangish bed of translucent spheres of fish roe. The collection of sushi samples reminds me of the challenge of finding my way in this foreign land. I showcase these fake food treasures in my dining room in an ebony lacquerware bento box decorated in the Japanese tradition with red and gold fans interspersed with stylized leafy branches.

Food replicas are as unique to Japan as its language and writing system and have been produced in Japan for almost one hundred years as a means to showcase items on the menu and stimulate the appetite through visual suggestion. Takizo Iwasaki is said to have introduced the first samples in 1917 and in 1932 established Iwasaki Company, which continues to dominate the market. But the trend really took off after World War II as a way to introduce Western foods, such as the omelette, to the Japanese public.

Iwasaki sculpted the original samples out of wax, which was prone to fading and melting. Then came molds made of seaweed jelly. Now the actual food item is used to create a silicone mold, which is filled with liquid vinyl chloride and heated until it hardens. Sometimes the material is tinted to match the color of the food, as in the case of the ice cream. However, master craftsmen still apply the finishing touches by hand. Details are painstakingly rendered with brushes and airbrushes using oil- or water-based paints. For accuracy the artisans continually reference the original food and photographs of prepared dishes provided by the individual restaurant.

My ice cream cones are so convincing in color and detail that I still find myself staring at them in amazement. Each is propped up in a stainless steel stand and displayed on my kitchen counter. Unlike in Japan where reassuring sampuru come to the aid of helpless tourists, this enduring pair of frozen delights stands ready to unnerve the next unsuspecting visitor to my kitchen.

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Photos by Susan Merritt

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