Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Fake foods? In Japan? Now, don't worry, it's not what you might think. I'm not going to scare you with stories of horse dressed up as beef or anything like that. I was back in Japan recently and walking around in Tokyo, I was reminded of the displays of the "food samples" in many
restaurants, cafes and other eateries in Japan (like the one on the right here). Correct me if I'm wrong but I think displaying food samples outside of restaurants is unique to Japan - I haven't seen it anywhere else. So, I wondered, why did this become "a thing" here in Japan but nowhere else? I'm not sure that there is a definitive answer to this question - one theory I found is that food samples were first used by restaurants serving Western style foods in the early twentieth century to show an un-knowing public what those foods actually looked like (something which a written menu obviously can't do). These restaurants started by displaying the real thing but this had obvious drawbacks and someone had the idea of producing wax models of food dishes from molds.
Another theory goes that the Japanese "eat with their eyes" - meaning that the visual aesthetic of food is more important to the Japanese than other people.
Yet another explanation is that food samples took off during the post-war occupation of Japan as it helped the occupying forces (who couldn't read the language) understand what food they could order. Whatever the reason for the popularity of food samples, they've become something of an art form in Japan - the first food samples used paraffin wax but this discoloured quite quickly and was also prone to melting so plastic became the material of choice. The first stage in the production of fake food involves making a mold - this is done by dipping the real foodstuff into silicone. Liquid plastic is poured into the silicone mold and heated until it solidifies. When the plastic has set, the sample is trimmed to remove any excess plastic and then painted. When a food sample of, say, a hamburger is produced, the sample is assembled from individual items, ie a burger, bun halves etc.
Food samples are usually made by hand, so as you can imagine, they don't come cheap. A meal on a dish like the katsu-kare right can cost Y25,000-30,000 (£175-200).
A restaurant wanting to represent its complete menu can end up spending thousands of pounds/dollars on food samples alone! On the other hand, they do last a lifetime. If, like me, you're thinking that food samples would make a fun gift, you can buy them in Japan. (I bought the little tsuke soba and chopsticks model above for Y4,000)
If you are ever in Tokyo, the best place to find food sample models is kappabashi-dori, which is a street dedicated to selling catering equipment. There, you'll find a shop called maiduru which only sells food samples (their website is here). You don't have to spend too much, there are miniature items like key rings or fridge magnets that you can pick up for $5 - $10. On the other hand, a lobster will set you back a cool $850! You can get to kappabashi by using the Ginza subway line. The closest station is tawaramachi. If you want to delve deeper into the art of the food sample, another producer, ganso-sample, even provides lessons in making food samples. You can book lessons at their website which you can find here.
Happy modelling! Kurumi XXXX