If there’s one thing you can always be sure of, it’s that if something weird goes viral then odds are that it comes from Japan – particularly when it’s food-related. After all, what other culture on Earth could enjoy tucking into Tofu skins, or raw horse meat, or even sugared grasshopper? Sometimes their culinary idiosyncrasies can create something awesome, but a lot of the time it merely confuses and befuddles westerners used to a far more conventional diet.
But while you might already know about their reputation for strange food, what you probably don’t know is that Japan also has an entire industry devoted to making ultra-convincing fake food entirely out of plastic! Yup, that sounds crazy enough that Japan would do it alright.
The art of Sampuru (which is an appropriation of the English word “sample”) is when stores and restaurants commission the moulding and design of uncannily realistic facsimiles of their dishes to display to the public. These enticing dishes are almost entirely made from hard plastic or other resins, which are then meticulously shaped, positioned and painted in order to look as delicious as possible.
Many popular restaurants in Japan create plastic copies to display their menu selection to the public. The duplicate dishes are displayed in their windows to inform and attract customers. Plastic food manufacturers guard their trade secrets jealously, and competition between the various companies is intense.
The plastic food industry in Japan is a massive one, with a total revenue of billions of yen each year. A single restaurant may order a complete menu of plastic items costing over a million yen, and the plastic replicas are most often far more expensive than the food they imitate.
Iwasaki Be-I is the biggest plastic food manufacturer in Japan, founded by Takizo Iwasaki in 1932, but the use of fake food for display purposes dates back to the early 1920’s. Japanese artisans and candlemakers developed food models that made it easy for patrons to order without the use of menus. Paraffin was used to create these until the mid-1980s, but because the colours faded when exposed to heat or sunlight, manufacturers later switched to vinyl chloride, which is the predominant material used today.
So the next time you’re planning a trip to the Far East, make sure that you’re extremely careful about what you bite into. If you wander into the wrong establishment then your next meal might well have the same nutritional value as a detergent bottle.