Tasty to the eyes: Japan's fake food
Is it "good enough to eat" is no idle question when it comes to the items Seth Doane has been eyeing in Japan:
Call it a little Japanese kitchen magic:
Green goop transformed into a head of lettuce ... a tempting tray of sushi which won't lose its appeal for years ... and a "cooked" mackerel has never seen a grill.
Ohio native Justin Hanus showed Doane around his adopted home city of Osaka. Known as Japan's food capital, fake or "Sampuru" food abounds here, too.
Where do you see "fake" food? "You see it in department stores, in shopping malls, in underground shopping areas, in touristy places such as this -- you see it everywhere," Hanus said.
Fake food can overcome a language barrier. "You point to it and say, 'This is what I want,'" said Doane.
"Exactly, and that's how it's been in this country for 70, 80 years."
Across Japan, realistic-looking food displays are an advertising tool, used by restaurants to demonstrate portion size, and are laid out to try to lure customers.
Hanus sells plastic food via his website, fakefoodjapan.com, and claims if you can cook it, they can make a replica that looks good enough to eat.
That's thanks to his manufacturer, 60-year-old artisan Fumio Morino.
Fake food took root in Japan, Morino said, since Western-style dishes were introduced. "Customers were unfamiliar with them, so they didn't sell well," he explained. "Today, I think it's as useful as ever."
At his Osaka workship, Doane found a sumptuous spread of treats -- all completely inedible, of course.
It is remarkable craftsmanship, which Marino first learned from his dad.
"My father always said, before you eat something, observe it," he remembered. "Study its color, patterns, and then you can dig in."
Each piece is hand-crafted -- a sort of artisanal plastic. It seems machines just can't make it look so real.
Making it look "just right" takes a lot of trial and error.
It turns out, panko coating for shrimp looks best if it's made from polyvinylchloride.
Or soba soup broth, from urethane. Kiwi seeds can be created by permanent marker, and getting beef to the perfect temperature is more airbrush than oven.
Morino said it can take 10 years to master this -- which made Doane feel better after his attempt to create shrimp tempura. "My tempura looks a little sad," he said.
And how expensive is plastic food? "It can get pretty pricy -- anywhere from $70 on up," said Hanus. "But the benefit there is, if you leave it outside it should last for at least seven years in all weather conditions. It's not going to budge."
Hanus says souvenirs, from key chains to magnets, make up most of his business.
But buying fake food is not just for the casual collector. Akiko Obata showed Doane the room her husband won't enter. The walls are decorated with pizza, and drawers are filled with crème brulee. "I sit in here, relaxing," she said. "I add new items and just look at my collection."
"Why did you start collecting plastic food, of all things?" Doane asked.
"I always thought plastic food samples were only available for people in the food industry," she said. "But when I found out they were available for a housewife like me, I started buying them."
She has no idea how much she's spent, though doesn't dispute estimates of more than $80,000.
Doane asked, "Do people think you're crazy?"
"I'm not aware of that!" Obata chuckled.
It has landed her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having more than 8,000 pieces of plastic prepared food items. Who knew there was such a category?
While Obata may have taken it to another level, we found this fake food is undoubtedly appealing -- and there's something almost enchanting about these hand-made, delicious-looking morsels you'd never dare to eat.
- Recipe index: "Sunday Morning"'s 2015 "Food Issue" - Delicious menu suggestions from top chefs and the editors of Bon Appetit magazine
For more info:
- Ganso Shokuhin, Tokyo-based fake food company
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