Plastic food, also known as “fake food,” in Japan is used for display and showcasing purposes. Now making fake food in Japan has evolved into a creative medium of art.
Food that looks rich, tasty, and fresh – showcased on everything from restaurants to coffee shops – but cannot be bitten into. Japanese food industry has a very rare art style of its own: shokuhin sampuru (食品サンプル), derived from the English “sample,” that are made out of various plastic materials. These samples are as realistic as the real dish, sometimes they look even better.
Restaurants get plastic food crafted from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – although wax was used in the earlier times – for the food they serve. This saves them the trouble of displaying actual food or not displaying what they serve at all.
It is not hard to spot plastic food through the window of a Japanese food store . It looks so realistic that people can actually mistake it for the real thing if they are not familiar with this concept of plastic food.
How It’s Made
Japanese plastic food is created in some well-known companies. The process is quite simple but the workers work hard to achieve the results. Modern manufacturing technologies and high quality plastic materials provide realistic-looking fake food replicas. A majority of fake food is still handcrafted for in order to create a realistic look and feel, artisans and highly trained craftsmen make realistic fake food, often painting them by hand.
Most food samples are created by using a mold. Firstly, the dishes that are economically profitable to be displayed outside are selected by the restaurants and real examples of these dishes are sent to plastic food making companies in Japan where each dish is carefully surveyed to determine the length and width of each fold and strand that might be present. Next, molds are made out of these dishes. Silicon is poured around each item within the dish in a saucepan atop a stove burner. The silicon solidifies into a mold in the shape of the original food (When a food sample is unavailable or would disintegrate or melt in the mold during casting, a clay model of the food is instead sculpted). Eventually the actual food is removed and the silicone retains the exact shape and texture of the real food. Liquid vinyl, in whatever color necessary, is then poured into the empty mold and the mold is set in an oven where the vinyl will harden for between ten and 30 minutes.
Then, an air gun is used to pop the vinyl chunks loose and any excess vinyl buildup is trimmed off with scissors. Oil-based paints in tubes and jars are used to add details. Airbrushes are used to provide consistency in the paint and ensure a natural look. Finally, some foods deserve a glossy finish and certain types of chemicals are applied to achieve a fresh look.
It is to be noted that different types of food take different steps to be replicated in plastic. For example, vegetables like cabbage are made by simply pouring layers of well-colored resins and vinyl over water.
Meat, tofu, breads, sushi, soups, noodles, drinks – all are made using different methods perfected over time with experimentation and constant research. Many items are used in preparing plastic specimens of these different items like wax, gelatin etc.
As for rice – a key ingredient in many Japanese cuisines – plastic rice grains are used to create different rice-based dishes in the same ways the actual dish is made with real rice. Mirroring of the real life process to achieve the effect instead of using shortcut mold-casting methods to arrive at the final block of item makes the plastic food even more realistic.
Upon a close look, you can figure out it is fake because it has a plastic gloss. Also, the purpose of plastic food is to display food as it is – not to fool people. Therefore, it is fairly easy to spot those foods where gravity is shown altered. For example, soups are shown as dipping from a vessel or chocolate flowing over a dish even when they are both tilted. Forks are shown holding noodles in air, water is shown being poured down on a dish, and so on. The main purpose is to highlight details.
In this highlighting, the plastic food is shown at its best – for example the sight of noodles held up by chopsticks makes one more desiring of the dish while the general idea of the same noodle dish or a plain-looking plate full of that might not stimulate your appetite quite as much.
The detailed plastic food samples of these Japanese restaurants are an integral part of culinary competition between different food-serving outlets. The more you can impress your customer the better.
A Brief History
Plastic food came to prominence as early as the 1920s when big restaurants found out that it will be better and more efficient for them to display plastic specimen of the food and the dishes they served.
Slowly this method started earning a lot of attention from their peers and competitors in smaller cities and towns too. Crafting fake food thus became a widely known industry all thanks to the middle-class working population of Japan which was inflating constantly. The Japanese working class thereafter liked to go out and grab a lunch or dine the night out in classy restaurants.
When the crowds started increasing, many restaurants picked up the plastic food as a method for informing their customers about the dishes that are available. This enabled the customers to make quicker decisions because the visual information would serve as a better reference than the literal one on restaurant menus or the word of mouth from friends. This advent was also encouraged by the influx of Western dishes that required to be properly displayed to the customers.
However, it is argued that the amount of unpleasant customer experiences led to the channeling of plastic food crafting as an art. Customers would often complaint about how the food they were served was different from what they were expecting to be served. The restaurants tried to show the actual food to the customers before they ordered but that was no solution to the problem for actual food has a restricted shelf life.
These confusions remain even today, but the Japanese found a way to tackle this culinary paradox way back in the mid-20th century – which is certainly remarkable. Making visuals would make the customers steer clear of a certain dish if it was not what they expect, thus saving the restaurants from trouble.
Slowly, this art began to be used for presentations and advertisement instead of restaurants trying to impress customers with the fresh look and realistic textures of their food. The plastic food henceforth became much more refined, detailed, and realistic. It also became very important because foreigners coming to Japanese restaurants found it better to watch a visual demonstration of the chef’s menu rather than to translate what is written on the hard copy of the menu.
Takizo Iwasaki is credited with creating the first food sample early last century. He noticed that restaurants wasted actual food for display purposes. Since he could not afford such a luxury due to his financial status, Iwazaki had to use candles in his house instead of electricity. Initially inspired by the shapes formed by candle wax dripping on a tatami mat, he subsequently molded a wax rice omelet in Gifu Prefecture in 1917. In 1932, he founded the company today known as Iwasaki Be-I.
Instead of selling, he rented his models for a month. Although the price was high – it was actually many times lower as compared to the price of the food restaurants had to waste for display purposes. Restaurants quickly adopted the new artistry of food sample making.
It is also understood that the Japanese first “eat with their eyes.” In Japanese cuisine it is traditionally recommended to divulge and appreciate the food with its appearance before actually consuming it. It is a part of the whole process. Therefore, it makes sense why Japan was the country where food sampling became so popular.
- The angles of dishes being displayed has to be carefully determined so that all rows of dishes are equally visible from top to bottom. The bottom ones are less tilted while the topmost ones are most tilted downwards.
- The company founded by Takizo Iwasaki, called Iwasaki Be-I, is still operating and holds the biggest market share of total food sample production output.
- Plastic food samples actually cost much higher than their edible counterparts.
- The methods of making certain plastic samples are very confidential. Companies cannot risk letting such trade secrets out and that is the reason for constant experimentation and the huge revenue of the industry.
- The big companies that make plastic food only do so upon order. There are no standard molds of certain dishes. Each restaurant has to issue specific orders because the shape, size, texture, etc. might differ from the same dish from another restaurant.
Uses Beyond Display
Japanese food industry is applauded for making explicit use of plastic food on their windows as their “visual menus.” A lot of foreigners avoid going into any random restaurant to eat because the language of the menu is generally Japanese. However, if there are food samples with their prices right outside the restaurant, you can make a more informed choice about whether to go in or not and what to eat.
Plastic food is an art of making very realistic food samples. And it is specialized so much that food samples are being applied outside of the realm of culinary showcasing. For example, for presentations that include food – in companies or on TV – plastic food is given preference. A popular industry that utilizes this art is healthcare and nutritional service.
This culinary art also finds uses in development areas of food-based brands where they use the plastic food to test or evaluate customer response. Plastic food is also luxuriously used in interior design by incorporating various elements of food in common household utility items or decorations. Collectors often place special orders for certain plastic food samples. Fake food is also used in daily life stuff ranging from key-chains and pen drives to iPhone cases and hair-clips. The website Fake Food Japan is perhaps one of the biggest websites to offer such a giant set of products that use fake food.