Would you pay up to $1,000 for food that will never expire? In restaurant displays across Japan, sampuru (derived from the word “sample”) have been enticing potential customers with their mouthwatering plastic and vinyl “ingredients” for decades.
Imagine a glistening bowl of ramen, delicately garnished with nori. A sponge cake topped with buttercream frosting and bright red berries. A plate of crispy pork cutlet, deep-fried to perfection. Every single dish looks good enough to eat, but there’s one catch — you can’t actually eat any of them.
Replica food has been around since the 1920s, but Takizo Iwasaki, also known as “The Father of Fake Food,” was the first person who created hyperrealistic versions. Legend has it that Iwasaki, an artisan from Gujo Hachiman, created a replica omelet after observing melted drops of candle wax. His wife couldn’t tell the difference between the wax model and a real omelet, so he continued creating different fake food products. In 1932, after his replica omelet appeared at a department store in Osaka, he founded Iwasaki Be-I, one of Japan’s largest fake food manufacturers and a pioneer of a $90 million industry.
Despite the high demand for sampuru, most fake food factories in Japan don’t mass produce their products. Instead, they hire artisans who specialize in popular food, from ramen to sushi. These artisans, who can even custom-make a variety of dishes, craft each component by hand. According to Business Insider, it can take up to 10 years to master the art of sampuru creation.
To start the process, restaurants usually freeze the dishes they want replicated and then ship them to the artisans, who make casting molds. These molds help the artisans reproduce realistic textures, depressions and tiny bumps on the surfaces of the fake food. The artisans fill the molds with synthetic materials, such as liquid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, before baking them. The type of material used depends on what’s being made — for example, urethane is a good choice for soba soup, while PVC is better suited for creating panko coating. The final products are painted and airbrushed. Sampuru experts can take around a day to make small replicas, but it can take up to one week to create larger orders.
Given sampuru’s intricate details and handmade parts, a hyperrealistic dish can cost $70 and up, or 10 times the cost of the actual food they’re representing. Eater reported in 2016 that an “unbelievably realistic crab” can even cost up to $1,000. Yet more and more restaurants, including those outside Japan, are willing to spend a lot on high-quality display foods. In addition to enticing potential customers and “putting [them] at ease,” these replicas can show what’s being offered, which is particularly helpful for tourists who don’t understand a menu in a language they’re unfamiliar with.
Iwasaki passed away in 1965, yet his legacy lives on in storefronts across Japan and beyond. His company has been around for almost nine decades, offering replicas of almost anything you can imagine. Although the options are seemingly endless, from elaborate sushi platters that will never rot to ice cream sundaes that will never melt, we must not forget the fake omelet that started it all.