Eating out in Japan is ranked highest out of all leisure activities (National Geographic, 2010). In Tokyo alone, there are some 160,000 restaurants (National Geographic, 2009). Whether it’s a traditional 料亭(ryo-u-te-i) experience, a quick bowl of 醤油ラーメン (sho-u-yu-ra-me-n) at a noodle stand, or a Michelin-acclaimed contemporary French bistro, Japan is a true mecca for food enthusiasts. Going-out to eat for the “eater” is most definitely a fun experience, yet for the food providers, attracting customers is no easy task. However, for over 70 years, Japanese food retailers have adopted an appealing mode of menu advertisement that is now standard no matter where you go in Japan: サンプル(sa-m-pu-ru) or plastic food displays.
The concept was developed in the 1920s, when an ambitious entrepreneur began manufacturing wax food models from his small apartment in Osaka. This man was Takizo Iwasaki, who now owns one of the largest plastic food model supplier companies in the world, Iwasaki Be-I. Over the years, food models were no longer made from wax, but from liquid plastic and silicon, giving the models a whole new dimension of texture and realism. Here’s what happens in a nutshell:
- silicon is poured on the food to form moulds
- the food is removed and discarded
- the moulds are put in ovens to cook
- models are removed from the moulds
- garnishes or sauces are put on in layers and reheated until the entire model is complete
- painting, adding texture and positioning to make the models realistic
Today, a large concentration of independent plastic food model manufacturers can be found in 合羽橋 (ka-p-pa-ba-shi) in Tokyo.
Restaurants worldwide are beginning to incorporate plastic food models as part of their promotional mix, but interestingly, for something very Japanese, plastic food models are actually a result of dealings with the West. The introduction of Western menu items was initially poorly received as many Japanese were unsure what the dishes actually were. So, in response to this apprehension over unfamiliar menu offerings, plastic food models were used to inform customers about these foreign dishes (National Geographic 2009). As more restaurants began to adopt this tactic, it gradually evolved to become a normative for all eateries. Thus, with the exception of high-end dining establishments, plastic food displays are as ubiquitous as the restaurants in which they are used.
Whatever the case, they remain a mouth-watering feature of Japanese dining that many food appreciators (me included) look forward to when browsing for restaurants to dine in. いただきます!