TOKYO – Alberto Pellegrini doesn’t speak or read Japanese, a deficit that threatened to leave the Italian tourist starving in a nation famous for its gastronomic delights.
Fortunately for the hungry honeymooner, restaurants across this food-obsessed nation – where English menus range from sparse to non-existent – often display their wares in the form of intricately-made plastic replicas.
The sight of a giant hotdog slathered in condiments doesn’t faze the average Japanese restaurant goer, and these fake food parades are often so similar to the real thing that they almost dare potential customers to take a bite.
A sudsy-looking beer, perfectly glazed sushi and indestructible deep-fried pork cutlets, known as tonkatsu, are a common sight on the streets of neon-lit Tokyo and even the smallest towns.
“It can really help,” Pellegrini said as he and his new wife combed lunch venues in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district.
“I point at the food and I just say ‘I want this, I want that’. It is easier because choosing from a list (in Japanese) is impossible.”
But that sumptuous-looking futomaki has less-than-tasty origins.
“The original craftsman was working for doctors and making models for pathological studies, such as skin diseases and human organs, before he was asked to make food samples for a restaurant,” says Yasunobu Nose, a senior editor at the leading Nikkei business daily who authored a book about food models.
That turn of events in the early 1920s set off a food revolution in Japan where the idea spread rapidly as eating out soared in popularity and rural people flocked to the cities.
Unused to what city restaurants had to offer, the models gave country dwellers and locals alike a quick visual rundown of the chef’s specialties before stepping inside an eatery.
Nearly a century later, “Japanese have developed a sense of getting information from three-dimensional signs,” Nose said, adding that plastic food also has a limited presence in neighboring China and South Korea.
“You’re calculating lots of things – what kind of side dishes are there, how big is the meal, and is it economical?” he said.
“But for foreign tourists who don’t have this literacy, food samples are just something that closely resemble real dishes.”
The modern-day alchemy involves making a plastic mold of the real-life food and then adorning it with just the right colors to tantalize the taste buds of passing customers.
Iwasaki Co., a leading plastic food maker, has an army of craftspeople who hand paint the molds, which sell for as much as $100 each, although restaurants can lease a fake hamburger set for about $6 a month.
“Our main customers are restaurant owners, but plastic food samples are increasingly popular among ordinary people,” said Takashi Nakai, a spokesman for the company, which started business in 1932 when the samples were made of wax instead of today’s more durable plastic.
Iwasaki recently opened two shops in Tokyo where it sells sushi cell-phone charms and bacon-adorned key chains— all with multilingual signs warning that “this is not edible.” The shops also let visitors take a stab at creating their own fake food.
Still, high-end restaurants rarely offer such blatant visual aids, while efforts to transport the idea to the West have been less than successful, Nakai says.
“That’s partly because we need real dishes to produce food samples so geographical distance is a hurdle.”
Israeli tourist Elda Rozencvaag was not impressed.
“When I see this it makes me feel like I don’t want to eat it. It is too weird,” he said, staring a plate of perfectly formed sushi. “It has too many details— even more than in the real dish.”
Pellegrini, however, was relieved at the visual guide, even if he’s not sure what he’ll get.
“I think this is fish,” he said, pointing to a plastic squid.
“And this looks like an omelet. But I can’t be sure it’s an omelet.” It was a fishcake.