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In Japan, plastic gives tourists food for thought

PLASTIC PASTA: In the food-obsessed nation of Japan, visual guides, such as this fake bowl of spaghetti - entirely made of plastic - are used by restaurant owners to showcase their chef's specialities.


    Aug 07, 2013

    In Japan, plastic gives tourists food for thought

    MR 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 mislead 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.

    "It can really help," Mr Pellegrini said, as he and his 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, or sushi roll, has less-than-tasty origins.

    Mr Yasunobu Nose, a senior editor at the leading Nikkei business daily, who wrote a book about food models, said: "The original craftsman (of fake-food models) worked for doctors and made models for pathological studies, such as skin diseases and human organs, before he made food samples for a restaurant."

    That turn of events in the early 1920s set off a food revolution in Japan where the idea of food models 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 a chef's specialities before stepping inside an eatery.

    Iwasaki, a leading plastic-food maker, has an army of craftsmen who hand-paint the models, which sell for as much as US$100 (S$127) each, although restaurants can lease a fake hamburger set for about US$6 a month.

    Iwasaki spokesman Takashi Nakai said: "Our main customers are restaurant owners, but plastic-food samples are increasingly popular among ordinary people."

    The company started in 1932 when its samples were made of wax, instead of today's more-durable plastic.

    Still, high-end restaurants rarely offer such blatant visual aids, while efforts to transport the idea to the West have been less than successful, Mr Nakai said. "That's because we need real dishes to produce food samples, so geographical distance is a hurdle."

    Mr Pellegrini, however, was relieved to have a visual guide, even if he's not sure what he'll get. Pointing to a plastic squid, he said: "I think this is fish. And this looks like an omelette. But I can't be sure if it's an omelette."

    It was a fishcake.