International Business

The art of faux food: Japanese company makes real-looking samples

Miami Herald Staff

Since 1932, when Takizo Iwasaki used one of his wife’s omelets as the inspiration for a realistic-looking wax food sample, an Iwasaki company has been turning out those ubiquitous faux food dishes that grace the front windows of many Japanese restaurants.

Creating plastic sushi and sashimi, a lobster dinner, richly marbled Wagyu beef, doughnuts slathered with pink icing, a Caesar salad, a whole grilled fish, shrimp tempura, noodles topped with a fried egg or a chocolate ice cream sundae with a cherry on top, is all in a day’s work for Iwasaki.

Although the techniques have changed over time, and vinyl resin — not wax — is now the material of choice, Iwasaki’s Original Food Samples Shop (Ganso Shokuhin Sampuru-ya) in Tokyo’s Asakusa district still offers classes in the art of making food samples using the traditional wax method.

The textures and colors are so precise that it’s often difficult to tell real food from the samples. In fact, the plastic takeout containers that students are given to take their faux masterpieces home come with a do-not-eat warning.

Iwasaki, who died in 1965, became the first person to commercialize wax food samples.

The modern Iwasaki Co. Ltd., now the biggest sample food company in Japan, was established in November 1975, and it has branched out from simply creating model food to producing menu fliers and other promotional materials, restaurant consulting, selling insurance and making store display cases.

It now has three stores and five factories — the largest in Yokohama — that turn out about 200,000 sample food items annually for commercial use, said Yuta Kurokawa, a company spokesman. The Original Food Samples Shop also sells souvenirs — sushi magnets, key chains shaped like macaroons and slices of fruit, cupcake desk accessories and even a clock with each hour marked by a different variety of sushi.

Other sidelines are realistic vinyl aquarium fish, pharmaceutical samples and false teeth for the deceased.

The company also exports the samples to Australia and Hawaii, and had a factory in San Francisco until about 10 years ago.

Food samples have been around since the late Taisho to early Showa periods — for those who don’t mark their time by emperors’ reigns, that’s roughly the 1920s to the early 1930s — and it is not clear who invented them. Researchers say they seemed to have cropped up in several locations around the same time and began spreading throughout Japan with the advent of department store cafeterias. Now they’re everywhere.

After trial and error, Iwasaki’s original experiments in Osaka led to the No. 1 Memorial Omelet, which still occupies a special place in company lore.

Until about 20 years ago, wax food samples were created in gelatin molds made from seaweed. But the wax samples, which occupied a prominent place in the front windows of restaurants, sometimes melted under direct sunlight and broke easily, said Kurokawa.

Now, vinyl resins coaxed into realistic shapes in silicone molds are used. A special coating gives the samples a just-cooked sheen and makes them look tasty.

Most of the sample dishes are custom-made, and the process starts with a visit to the restaurant to watch the food being prepared. Sketches are made and photos are taken on site.

“We make a sample drawing that shows which items go where on the plate,” said Kurokawa. “We use photos to see how to garnish a plate.”

When Iwasaki gets the go-ahead from a customer, the dishes are brought to the factory where more measurements are taken and silicone molds are created. “We have to take into account the thickness of the vegetables, how the meat is sliced,” said Kurokawa. “Each restaurant has its own way of cutting its meat.”

A custom creation costs about 10,000 yen ($85). Some restaurants display dozens of dishes and, to economize, they rent their samples for a monthly fee, said Kurokawa.

“A lot of Japanese people also like to try to make food samples themselves,” he said.

On a recent Saturday morning, a group gathered on the second floor of Iwasaki’s Kappabashi (Kitchen Town) showroom in Asakusa, a district filled with cooking and restaurant-supply stores, to try their hand at making ersatz tempura and heads of lettuce.

First, members of the class covered up with long aprons and selected pre-formed pieces of wax food — pumpkin slices, peppers, squash and shrimp — to coat in wax tempura batter. Shrimp was the most popular choice.

An instructor showed the class how to spill tiny droplets of tan-colored wax from a height of about 18 inches into warm water to roughly form a square. Then the shrimp was placed onto the warm wax, rolled up, trimmed and plunged into cooler water. Working quickly and gingerly was of the essence.

All of this was accompanied by oohs and aahs as the shrimp began to look like it was enrobed in crispy tempura batter.

While the tempura drew raves, making a head of lettuce was the true show-stopper.

It was much trickier, and involved ladling a thin strip of white wax into the water and then spreading it out into a thin sheet that would become the stem and internal leaves. A strip of green wax was overlaid on the white, and then the whole thing pulled out like taffy into a thin sheet that was jerked downward and then lifted from the water, giving a leafy effect. Starting with the stem portion, the giant lettuce leaf was rolled up and shaped into a ball.

For those bitten by the wax-food creation bug, the Original Food Samples Shop offers kits for 1,905 yen (around $16) so people can create wax snow cones, pizza, soba noodles, tempura, traditional rice dishes and more at home.

The most popular kit? Neapolitan spaghetti, said Kurokawa.

If you go

Ganso Shokuhin Sampuru-ya (Original Food Samples Shop), 3-7-6 Nishiasakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. (Near the Asakusa Station on the Tsukuba Express.)

Phone: 0120-17-1839. Classes are in Japanese but you can follow along even if you don’t speak the language. Reservations can be made only by phone. For that, you will need a Japanese-speaking friend.