When I was a child, whenever I went to department stores in Japan with my mum, we invariably would visit the top floor restaurants. While tasty enough, the highlight wasn’t the food – or it was, in a sense. What most engaged my senses was the fake food neatly displayed just outside the entrance of each restaurant. Bowls of ramen, rice dishes, shrimp tempura, all plastic and all looking good enough to eat.
The hyper-realistic models are a distinctly Japanese phenomenon. Tailor-made for individual restaurants, these fakes are modelled after clients’ real dishes. The process involves pouring liquid resin into a mould and baking the form in an oven until it solidifies. After the shape is set, it is removed from the mould, trimmed and further sculpted. The lookalike food is painted and then carefully arranged on a dish to resemble the original.
This method of advertising a restaurant’s food first appeared in Japan in the 1920s. At the time, eating out was starting to become popular in the cities, and restaurants wanted a way to show what they had to offer to customers who were unaccustomed to the experience.
Techniques improved over time. Takizo Iwasaki is credited with inventing modern production methods in the 1930s; the food model business he started is still the dominant producer of replica food today. In the 1970s, resin replaced wax for greater durability and detail. Today, food models help restaurants create a positive interaction between the business and customers, and they make it easier for customers to figure out what they want to order.
Anyone who wants to buy a fake bowl of ramen can head to the restaurant-supply stores in Tokyo’s Kappabashi area, while miniature food key rings are found in tourist shops. Those looking to try their hand at the fascinating food modelling craft can also take classes.
Old wax food models can still be seen on display at restaurants in the old districts. Those fake curry dishes and dumplings may look a bit grimy and faded, but there’s something about the sight, usually complete with a cat sunning itself, that induces nostalgic warmth.