When I watched Big Bird in Japan as a kid, one scene in particular stuck in my memory, even decades afterwards.
In one scene, Big Bird stops in front of a restaurant and looks at the food displayed in the window. He demands to eat the food that’s in the display and, to his disappointment, discovers that it’s not real food at all, just a plastic replica.
Known in Japan as サンプル, or “sample,” this waxy, fake food has been around for nearly 100 years and, over time, has evolved beyond restaurant windows.
Nowadays, you can get this fake food in any form you want: keychains, flash drives, cell phone charms, and even, as we wrote about a while back, fake food iPhone cases.
Where does the fascination all come from? How did fake food come to be a thing in Japan?
You have one group to thank for sampuru: foreigners. Not because fake food is a foreign invention, but because it was foreign influences that shaped it.
As foreign influences became more and more prevalent in Japan in the early 20th century, more foreigners found themselves in Japan, and the Japanese found more foreign food in Japanese restaurants.
In order to help foreigners unfamiliar with Japanese food and Japanese people unfamiliar with foreign foods, restaurants began placing plastic replicas in the windows so people could have an idea of what they were ordering.
How Do They Make It?
At first, fake food was a primitive affair. Early in its history, food replicas were made with different forms of wax. Of course, this wasn’t ideal; wax isn’t the most sturdy material ever.
Nowadays, sampuru has reached a level of sophistication that early 20th century restauranteurs could have only dreamt about. The materials used now (vinyl choloride) don’t fade or deteriorate as older replicas did, and could probably withstand the apocalypse if it came down to it.
Through all of this though, one thing has remained the same: fake food in Japan is still, by and large, handcrafted. While you might think that it’d be easy to mass-produce a bowl of fake ramen, most manufacturers take an artisanal approach, taking great pride in their craft.
Some artists even create their sampuru using the same methods that might be used to make the actual food. The closer to the real thing, the better.
Where Can You Buy It?
Where do you go for fake food in Japan? One place makes and sells more plastic food than possibly anywhere else in the world: Kappabashi, Tokyo.
Kappadashi is a street in Tokyo that has an incredible concentration of suppliers of restaurant equipment. Some people call it “Kitchen Town.”
Alongside the shops that sell industrial refrigerators and mixers, there are businesses that specialize in fake food. Shops offer a wide selection of fake food to buy as individual pieces, or wholesale. You can even, as This Japanese Life did, make your own sampuru creation.
For more pictures, check out Danny Choo’s blog from when he visited Kappadashi last year.
Personally, while I definitely think that the fake food craze is interesting, I can’t imagine ever wanting to buy some for myself.
What do you think? Would it be cool to own some fake sushi or a fake steak? Tell me in the comments!