A century-old fake food culture leaves epicurious travellers with some mouth-watering keepsakes.

Any good foodie knows that Japanese cuisine has an impressive international reputation. Globetrotters praise the island’s delicious dishes for everything from good health to stunning presentation, but the real deal is increasingly in competition with its quirky rival: fake food. Called sampuru in Japanese (an adaptation of the English word “sample”), these products are astonishingly realistic imitation foods, often displayed in restaurant windows and at supermarket counters to attract hungry customers. Each item is handmade by artists who take pains to create the perfect doppelganger dish—with the right colour, size and texture, whether it’s a delicate piece of nigiri sushi or a heaping bowl of ramen.

An original Japanese product, sampuru are becoming popular in Asian countries like Korea and China, but they might take Westerners by surprise. Newbies might ask why the Japanese use fake food rather than colour menus. But menus don’t offer the same sense of size, while sampuru are accurately portioned, so you know exactly what you’re getting when you sit down to order. It may be a shiny novelty for Westerners, but fake food isn’t far from its 100-year birthday. Legend has it that the prototype was inspired in 1917 when inventor Takizo Iwasaki watched a hot, waxy blob fall from a candle one night, forming a shape on the tatami—and an idea in Iwasaki’s mind. Shortly thereafter he created the first sampuru, a waxy rice omelette. His idea was timely: with Japan seeing an influx of unfamiliar Western foods, sampuru were a great way to introduce these unusual dishes. Fake food became an industry after the 1930s, when restaurants began seeing a rise in profits after displaying the pretty dishes in their storefronts. Contemporary shops now display models made from plastic instead of wax, which are even more artistic and durable. In terms of culture, fake food has come full circle: it’s now introducing Western tourists to Japanese foods for the first time, allowing them to order at restaurants even when the menu is indecipherable.

A lot of time and labour goes into each sampuru, so restaurant-quality pieces are pricey, but shops are increasingly producing more afford- able souvenir sampuru for travellers who want to take a taste home with them. You can find wholesale outlets in Osaka and Tokyo, but the majority of sampuru makers are still based in Iwasaki’s little town of Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture. With almost a dozen shops, the city is full of artisans who say it takes a decade to perfect the art of imitation edibles. If store-bought keepsakes aren’t enough for you, but 10 years sounds like too much commitment, try a one-off lesson and take home a sampuru made by your very own hands.


 

Learn the DOs and DON’Ts of fake food

Don’t be a phony

When you head out into the fake food world, be sure to follow these three rules of thumb, both for your enjoyment and your intestinal health.

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DO point and choose

If your language skills are lacking, fake food is definitely your friend, so point out what you want.

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DO NOT eat

These sumptuous sampuru are strictly a feast for your eyes—eat them and get a belly full of plastic!

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DO buy souvenirs

Luckily, you can take home a piece of your Japan experience with a fake food keychain or cellphone strap.


Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe