A man carefully slices a loaf of rye bread. He piles lettuce leaves and slices of ham and cheese onto one slice, then tops it with another slice. The tasty looking sandwich finished, he cuts it neatly in two.
Across from him, another man pulls an iron plate of roast beef out of the oven; others chop cucumbers. On a nearby stainless-steel worktop, a woman carefully piles up coils of soft ice cream into cones.
It could be a scene in any big commercial kitchen, but one thing is missing: smell.
There’s no smell because these workers aren’t cooks and this is no kitchen. It’s the factory of Iwasaki Be-I in Tokyo’s Ikegami in Ota Ward. For more than 70 years, Iwasaki has been making plastic food. Its expertly crafted fakes are for display outside restaurants, intended to lure customers in by looking just like the real thing — or better.
Such plastic food (or “food samples,” as they are known in the catering trade) can be found in display windows at restaurants, izakaya, coffee shops and even ice-cream parlors across Japan.
Food samples appear to be unique to Japan, says Yuta Kurokawa, spokesperson of Iwasaki Be-I, which has an approximately 40 percent share of the market in this country. Although accurate figures are not available for the plastic food market, industry sources say, annual sales are estimated to reach about 8.5 billion yen. “Where Western people read the menu and talk to waiters to get information about what’s on offer at a restaurant, Japanese people can see the sample of dishes before they even enter,” Kurokawa says.
Plastic food is undeniably convenient, but why did the custom spring up in Japan? We don’t know exactly when replica dishes were first displayed, but Kurokawa speculates that the custom arose when Western food first became widespread in restaurants during the early Showa Period. “Japanese diners encountered totally new foods when Western dishes moved onto the menu. Restaurants then seemed to come up with the idea of using samples to actually show the food,” Kurokawa said, adding that it is unsure if these restaurants had displayed real food first.
Journalist Yasunobu Nose has a theory that links the plastic replicas to the visual aesthetic of Japanese food appreciation. In his book titled “Me de taberu Nihonjin (Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes),” Nose writes that food samples are part of the Japanese tendency to “first ‘taste’ dishes by sight, then eat with their mouths and stomachs.”
Perhaps this aesthetic has led to the undeniable artistry of much plastic food. Replica items such as noodles and rice are mass-produced in a factory of Iwasaki Be-I in Gifu Prefecture, but otherwise, each food sample is meticulously crafted by hand to resemble the real thing as closely as possible.
The creators of the plastic dishes pride themselves on their attention to detail. “Even with a simple dish like a bowl of ramen, the appearance differs from shop to shop,” says Kurokawa. “We get samples of real food from our clients; each plastic copy is unique.”
At the beginning of the production process, the real food — a piece of beef steak, for example — is dipped in silicone to create a mold. A liquid plastic is poured into the mold, then heated in an oven until it solidifies. The final — and crucial — stage is coloring the item.
“Coloring is the most important step,” says Yoichi Shimizu, the director of manufacturing at Iwasaki Be-I. Another finishing touch to fool the customer is the glaze or teri found on so many Japanese foods.
Shimizu boasts that his creative team are able to make “perfect fakes” of almost anything served up by a restaurant.
The challenge, Shimizu explains, is copying foodstuffs in their natural, uncooked state. “It is easier to copy something processed by humans. For example, it is far easier to copy grilled fish fillets and sashimi than whole fish,” he says.
As much craft goes into these functional items as into a work of art — and for some curious foreign admirers, a piece of fake food is an unusual souvenir of their visit to Japan.
In the Kappabashi area near Tokyo’s Asakusa, a commercial retail district for the restaurant and catering trade, food samples are available to the public for purchase. A piece of shrimp sushi will set you back 2,500 yen; a chocolate parfait is a pricier-than-life 6,800 yen. According to shop clerk Shukuko Aoki, the high price is no deterrent to tourists, who snap up such items. Most popular among Japanese shoppers, she says, are the miniature versions of plastic food attached to keitai straps, retailing at around 900-1,200 yen.
Will Japan’s love affair with plastic food ever spread further afield? It is possible, says Kurokawa.
Already, some restaurants in South Korea are displaying plastic food. In addition, in some other countries, restaurants place real food at the entrance as samples, he says. “It is possible that plastic food could catch on in these countries, too.”