On a diet? How’s this sound? An ice cream parfait in a tall, frosty glass with fat scoops of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla topped by milky clouds of whipped cream and a single, shiny, red cherry.
The cost is steep — about 5,000 yen — but the calories are no problem at all. For there are none. The parfait, in all its creamy majesty, has a calorie count of precisely zero. That’s because this parfait is not meant to be eaten, except with the eyes. It’s a yummy example of another unique Japanese innovation — replica food.
From sleek Chinese noodles glistening in pork broth, to pepperoni pizza dripping with extra cheese, to charbroiled steak straight from the grill, to freshly-sliced sashimi atop slender fingertips of white rice and on and on — if a restaurant in Japan serves the real McCoy, odds are that a plastic replica of it is sitting outside in its showcase.
From sleek Chinese noodles glistening in pork broth, to pepperoni pizza dripping with extra cheese, to charbroiled steak straight from the grill, to freshly-sliced sashimi atop slender fingertips of white rice and on and on — if a restaurant in Japan serves the real McCoy, odds are that a plastic replica of it is sitting outside in its showcase. The food replicas serve several purposes. They attract customers, advertise menus and whet appetites. A common sight at any Japanese row of restaurants is hungry customers drifting from one window to the next, trying to decide which display looks tastiest.
All the replicas are handcrafted to perfection. They are not mere rubbery copies of grapes or bananas, as one might find in the West, but rather stunning imitations of cookery at its finest. More than one customer has noted that the plastic model in the window can sometimes look more sumptuous than what arrives on the plate.
Japan began the practice of presenting menu offerings with plastic imitations, and the practice has spread somewhat to neighboring countries and — of course — is followed by Japanese eateries around the world. The concept is certainly tied to Japanese dining aesthetics, where items are arranged on the plate with beauty in mind. Yet, oddly enough, the custom of replica food was born from contact with the West.
In the Meiji era at the end of the 19th century, Japanese restaurant-goers were frequently confounded by the strange new Western cuisines flooding into the country. Even with Japanese translations of menu items, most guests had no idea what they were ordering. To help, many restaurants took the expensive and space-consuming means of preparing samples for their customers to peruse. To cut costs, some restaurants provided elaborate drawings or photos. But these one-dimensional presentations did not pique many appetites. The Meiji era slowly gave way to Taisho and then to Showa with little change.
Enter an entrepreneur from Gifu. Takizo Iwasaki was a young man bent on making an impact in the business world. By 1926 — the first year of Showa — Iwasaki had yet to find his niche. So he left Gifu for Osaka in search of his fortune.
Life was hard for Iwasaki in Osaka as well until one day — perhaps while eating a rice omelet in a crowded lunch shop — something clicked in his imagination. He remembered the wax models of the human body on display at most Japanese apothecaries and the wax fruit and vegetables used in school nutrition classes and thought: “Why not!”
Iwasaki hurried back to his cramped apartment and — after days of trial and error — finally perfected a wax model of a rice omelet. Other models followed. Then he loaded them on his bicycle to see if any shops would buy his replica food. To his joy, they all did.
Even among imitators, success leads to imitation, and Iwasaki soon had competitors across Japan. Yet the company he founded in his Osaka apartment — Iwasaki Be-I — remains the largest purveyor of replica food to this day.
Wax eventually gave way to high quality plastic. The replicating process goes like this:
A restaurant wishing to have a model of one of its dishes first prepares that dish for the replica food company, which takes photographs and makes sketches of each item’s placement on the plate. The sketches are then whisked to the factory where the actual food is dipped in silicon. When the silicon dries, the food is popped free, leaving exact-size molds for hamburger patties, deep-fried prawns, spring rolls or whatever the dish requires.
Replica artists then prepare sauces and garnishes flawlessly matched with the photographs. The factory wall is lined with drawers and sacks containing plastic copies of any food conceivable: fake carrots, onions, eggplant, cabbage, shrimp, bacon, squid, rice, noodles of all varieties and much, much more.
To make a meat sauce, for example, the replica artist will first stir up a synthetic tomato-like paste to match the colors in the photograph. Next he or she will dice up phony carrots and onions, exactly like a real chef. A handful of artificial ground beef is mixed with the paste to give it authenticity, and the final production is topped with a sprinkle of winter green peas — bogus ones, of course.
Just like real chefs, replica artists spend a lot of time mastering their craft. Full training can take as long as two years.
And the time needed to make the meat sauce, including ladling it onto a heap of synthetic spaghetti, microwaved to give it that “just boiled” look? No more than 15 minutes. And in the end, the real thing and the ersatz model may be indistinguishable.
Iwasaki Be-I artists like to tell the story of the time they received a written request from a Japanese restaurant in the States for a “soybean” cake. The artists scratched their heads and then charged ahead without a photograph. Eventually they created a luscious layer cake, fluffy with cream and decorated with brown shavings of soybeans — only to then receive a Polaroid from their client. It was a shot of a pale block of tofu!
The heart of the replica food world is the wholesale shopping district of Kappabashi in northeast Tokyo. Here various stores peddle nothing but imitation goodies for restaurants across the land and around the world. Tourists are welcome too, and many come to take home copies of their favorite Japanese delicacies.
Looking for a brimming bowl of tempura udon? In Kappabashi it can be yours for 4,000 yen. Or how about a massive strawberry frappe, just like the one you enjoyed at the beach in Kamakura? There it is, for just 5,000 yen. And the cost for that perfect food souvenir — a full tray of counterfeit sushi? Over 20,000 yen — a lot more than the genuine article perhaps, but not nearly as perishable.
Replica food can last for years if kept out of the damaging rays of sunlight which bleach the coloring. For this reason most restaurants renew the displays in their windows every few months.
And for a dieter, what could be a better gift than a never-melting ice cream parfait? The ultimate temptation — but with no danger of giving in.