REPLICA FOOD IN JAPAN - SAMPURU CHEF
Howsham food became a multi-billion yen industry.
Guests to the factory of Tsuyoshi Iwasaki are presented with a rasher of bacon. The succulent marbled sliver is branded with his name, title and e-mail address—an apt introduction to the owner of Japan’s biggest manufacturer of replica food. At the headquarters of Iwasaki Co on the outskirts of Tokyo, racks of golden brown 'gyoza' jostle for attention with boat-shaped dishes of lustrous raw tuna, bowls of creamy ramen and a dozen pinkish scallops in iridescent shells. The acrid smell of resin and paints is the only hint that everything on show is utterly tasteless.
Most of these Japanese 'sampuru', from the word “sample”, will go on display in restaurant windows, from fast-food outlets to izakaya (bars), throughout the east of the country, in the hope of luring hungry customers. A sister company, managed by Mr Iwasaki’s brother, covers the western half of Japan. Together they make over ¥5bn ($46m) in annual sales, and claim to account for four-fifths of Japan’s food-replica market. Mr Iwasaki says they have no real competitors; sales at the next-biggest firm are one-tenth the size. Most are small workshops, many based in Gujo, a city in Gifu prefecture where the founder of Iwasaki Co, which started in 1932, was born.
The firm has a garnished founding myth. After Tsuyoshi Iwasaki’s grandfather dripped candle wax on a tatami mat, he used it to reproduce an omelette dish with ketchup, based on one his wife made. The market for fakes was ripe: newly arrived Western dishes needed promoting and explaining to locals in the 1930s, as more people dined out. Traditional Japanese restaurants also switched from hanging 'noren' curtains in their entrance-ways—which granted passers-by a peek at the food inside— to doors, creating demand for shop-front replicas that gave a true sense of dishes’ presentation and size, says Mr Iwasaki.
Though wax counterfeits were used for decades, they lost their shape and faded quickly. Now most are made from ultra-durable polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Designers go to restaurants to watch chefs prepare dishes. They come away with what Mr Iwasaki calls “an architect’s sketch”, photographs and notes on textures, colours and consistency. At the factory, each bit of the dish is individually cast to create a silicone mould, into which the PVC is poured, baked and hand-painted or airbrushed, from the boiled-egg halves in a bowl of ramen to its noodles (string, coated with resin). These ingredients are then assembled into a display.
Trade secrets are jealously guarded in an industry that competes mainly on realism. Mr Iwasaki’s team only mastered clear liquids a decade ago, with the discovery of a new material. Raw food, fish in particular, remains among the most challenging to mimic: designers proudly claim that it takes as long to master fake sushi — about a decade — as it does to become a sushi chef. Grains of rice are individually made and balls of it shaped by hand. For more convincing counterfeits, natural shells, spices and herbs are used with the plastics.
The hours spent crafting a replica determine its price tag, which can be up to twenty times the selling price of the original dish. But demand for them is wilting. Young people turn to food blogs for reviews of how dishes taste; hip retailers are using digital menus with appealing pictures. High-end restaurants snub plastic, no matter how appetising. The much longer shelf life of PVC replicas means many do not need to be replaced for years. Mr Iwasaki is looking to increase sales in new areas, including tourist trinkets and educational replicas for hospital patients that explain what foods to eat after an operation.
Food fads can still be lucrative: a boom in ramen has raised demand for distinct noodle shapes and sizes in a category of replica food that had been standardised. Chain restaurants, the biggest clients, are launching more seasonal variations. Owing to this turnover of menu items, more are hiring replicas: rentals account for 60% of Iwasaki Co’s sales. Some 13,000 restaurants across the country pay a flat monthly fee—around ¥1,000 for a hamburger, for example — that includes refinements and updates to their display every three months. Iwasaki Co recycles some of the stale food for new displays, the beauty of working in a business of imperishables.
In "The Economist",vol. 423, n. 9044, 10-16 June, 2017, excerpts pp.58-59. Digitized, adapted and illustrated to be posted by Leopoldo Costa.