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The food that never lets you down

by Kazuko Ide

Eventually, a bowl of steaming noodles will go soggy, the lettuce in a salad will go limp and turn brown and a piece of sushi will dry up.

At Maizuru Co., however, all the food — from a slice of banana to a platter of steak and French fries — sits on the shelves, heedless of the passage of time. Their next stop is the show window of restaurants where they will be displayed in all their glossy freshness for years to come.

Food sample manufacturing, which began around the 1930s by innovators who were reportedly inspired by anatomical models of the human body used for medical studies, is a craft unique to Japan. Although upscale restaurants shun the practice, displaying sample food is still popular in the food industry.

“Making a faithful copy of the dish is not always enough,” says Kojiro Akizuki, a seasoned craftsman with a 25-year career, as he looks at a glossy magazine photo of katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with a fried pork cutlet and a half-cooked egg). A big arrow points to the runny egg white, which is to be the focal point of the sample. According to the craftsman, the key is to zero in on the best part of the food, and work on the “shape, color and the dynamics” to recreate a mold that looks good enough to eat.

At a factory located in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, food samples are produced by 60 craftspeople, most of whom are women. The process begins with the molding of the actual food in silicon. For a cutlet sandwich, molds of the bread and cutlet are prepared separately.

“We make molds of anything from a grain of rice to a large fish,” says Akizuki, holding a mold with pieces of sliced pork still inside. Nearby, a woman is working on miniature parfaits and other sweets, to be sold as magnets. Customers can buy samples, including ones that look like pieces of sushi, priced from 1,000 yen at the Maizuru shop located in Nishi-Asakusa.

In another room at the factory, molds filled with various shades of a vinyl chloride mixture are heated to 180 C in industrial ovens. At a glance, one can see peach slices, tuna for rolled sushi, diced tomato and seaweed, in the making. A woman is rolling a grooved vinyl-chloride film to form a spring onion. Akizuki notes that the company recently has been receiving orders for orange bell peppers and other vegetables that are new to Japan, reflecting changes in the nation’s diet.

Once the parts are complete, they are assembled to form various dishes. One worker carefully places shrimp tempura and vegetables on coiled udon noodles, while another tops kimchi with red paste mixed with tiny red pepper pieces.

The finishing touches are put on in another room. Here employees enhance the colors using airbrushes, sprinkle dishes with real sesame seeds, or apply glaze. In the Cafe Department, employees add silicon foam to the glasses of “beer.”

According to Akizuki, it takes at least four to five years to master the craft. He admits, however, that since the manufacturing process is broken down into steps today, most employees, unlike him specialize in just one particular procedure.

Maizuru, which has been in the business for 50 years, is one of about five major food sample manufacturers based in Tokyo. Since the techniques differ from firm to firm, Akizuki is able to tell apart the samples he sees on the street. Lately, the company has been receiving orders from Hong Kong and Taiwan, among other Asian countries. Unlike some of its competitors, Maizuru manufactures all of its products in Japan to control the quality.

Besides food, the company has produced samples of expensive soaps for display purposes. Ice cream and chocolates that do not melt are indispensable when making television commercials, says Akizuki.

What differentiates a veteran from a novice craftsman? Akizuki explains that when a veteran works on a sample, he knows instantly which colors to apply, in which order.

“Although it may seem a fun thing to do, food sample manufacturing is a tough job,” says Akizuki.