Japanese plastic food

From a “leaning tower of pizza” to a fish that cuts and cooks itself, making plastic food sculptures is becoming an art form in Japan, which is on display this week in Tokyo.

The pieces achieve the same level of detail as the noodle soups and crunchy plastic snacks that have long been displayed in Japanese restaurant windows, known as “shokuhin sampuru” or simply “sample dishes.”

“Sampuru” is common in ramen restaurants, hearty noodle soups or family restaurants in this country, where a century ago wax models were used to promote its menu to the expanding middle class.

Photo: AFP

“Usually we have to follow the customers’ instructions. We take their ideas into account when creating the pieces,” 57-year-old artist Shinichiro Hatasa explains to AFP. But you can “use your imagination”. “How it ends is entirely up to you,” he adds. For the exhibition, Hatasa invented a corn that sunbathes on the beach.

Other creations include fried shrimp with four deep-fried legs that walk like a tiger on a head of cabbage, or a Tetris game made with chicken.

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Photo: AFP

Also a traditional Japanese breakfast food consisting of fermented soybeans, called “natto” spirals upwards like a powerful tornado. The sculpture is apparently called “nattornado”.

In total, about 60 sculptures are on display, some simple, but others show all the skills of the artists.

“They’re not real, but they look so real. It’s amazing,” says Reiko Ichimaru, one of the participants.

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Photo: AFP

“Hamburgers are for beginners”

All models are hand-made by the specialists of the Iwasaki Group, the leading company in the production of “sampuru”, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

In their factory in Yokohama, near Tokyo, the artisans first make molds from the ingredients of the dishes prepared by the restaurants.

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Then the meticulous work begins to decorate the patterns and make them look as realistic as possible, from the drops of moisture on the cold glass to the subtle bruises on the surface of the fruit.

“Fresh products are more difficult to prepare. Fresh vegetables, fresh fish. Cooked products are easier” because the colors are less complicated, explains 44-year-old factory manager Hiroaki Miyazawa.

“Burgers are for starters,” he adds.

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Photo: AFP

Sample meals are a multibillion-dollar business in Japan, although it has also been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced demand for restaurants.

“Sampuru” producers hope that tourists can soon return to the country to revive the restoration, but in the meantime they will also use their skills in other sectors.

So Iwasaki artisans made replica bananas of various degrees of maturity for factories to use to train new workers.

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Photo: AFP

They have also received inquiries from IT companies that want to present, for example, joke Wi-Fi routers.

And while the most original designs at the exhibition delight children and adults.

“I think the number of restaurants using plastic sample dishes is decreasing,” says Yutaka Nishio, 52. “It’s interesting to preserve this as art. It’s really fantastic.”

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