I never know what to order at a restaurant. Even more when the restaurant wants to be fancy and names their dishes something that has nothing to do with the actual dish. And even when it‘s a normal description of the meal I sometimes still won‘t get what it actually is. So, upset with European menus I went to Japan and found the best thing ever: fake food. But I started to wonder: why is there fake food in Japan?
What Is Fake Food?
Fake food or also food models are as the name says replicas of food. They are generally made out of a plastic-like material. But despite being made from plastic they look just as real and if not better than the actual meal.
But because they are hand-made food models can get quite expensive. It isn‘t rare that a restaurant spends 1’000’000 Yen (〜9’000$) on a whole set of dishes. For example a big plate of sushi for four people can cost about 58‘000 Yen (〜520$). But because once you have bought all your samples you can use them forever (assuming that your restaurant stays in business so long), food model manufacturer‘s profits are stagnating.
How to make fake lettuce.
Why Is There Fake Food in Japan?
The fake food in Japan is there to show what the food looks like and making the menu easy to understand. Another reason for why fake food is so popular in Japan is attracting customers. I’ll now further elaborate on these two aspects.
Making the Menu Easy to Understand
Seeing what your food looks like can give you a sense of security. Even though I‘ve been studying Japanese for almost two years now I often don‘t understand what‘s written on the menu. Even if it‘s in English. And having pictures or models to see what the food looks like and how big the portion is really helps deciding what to order.
But the food models aren‘t made for foreigners. They actually existed long before Japan became the tourist destination it is today. The food models are everywhere. The first models existed already in 1917 but only took off in the 1960s and 1970s. So what I think is more likely to be the case is that Japanese people want to see the food before they eat it.
The thing you want the most when you‘re hungry is definitely food. That’s why many restaurants put food models and pictures in front of their restaurant. When you walk by and see the food you might think: „Oh, that looks delicious!“ and go to that restaurant.
But sadly for the food samples times are changing and most people search restaurants on their smartphones now. That’s why food samples are changing.
Why Fake Food Is Changing
Until now the food models were used to invite customers and show us the menu in an exciting and easy to understand way. But as I said earlier food models aren’t something that you buy every other day. Profits from food model manufacturers are stagnating. Because of that they had to rethink their product.
Making Your Own Fake Food
Tourists but also Japanese people find fake food quite interesting. I too wanted to know more about the plastic food and went to a shop in Osaka where you can make food models on your own. There I made two sushi keychains. I find them really cool but I sadly they are just too big and would rather annoy me if I had them on my key.
Costing only about 2500 Yen per person, I highly recommend making your own fake food. You can choose between a variety of different dishes like bento (why bento is Japan‘s most special meal), takoyaki or sushi.
Shop in Osaka that I went to (only available in Japanese).
I said I made food models on my own, but that isn‘t actually that true. I only painted on the plastic which became the fish and then glued it onto the rice. And finally I put the metal keychain into the rice. When I showed it to my sister she thought that it was real sushi.
And btw, when making the food samples, you sit on the floor (Why do the Japanese eat and sleep on the floor?)
Fake Food Accessoires
If making fake food on your own sounds like too much work for you, you can also buy many different fake food accessories. The shop I went to to make plastic food sells almost everything you can think of.
Because most food models are hand made they are rather expensive. A smartphone case for example costs around 4’400 Yen. But there are also very cheap accessories like the pen in the picture which costs only 100 Yen.
Why Fake Food Only Exists in Asia
Have you ever seen fake food outside of Asia?
I haven‘t. And if you have I bet it wasn’t that good of a restaurant and was rather cheap. At least that’s the image that plastic food and also pictures on menus portray in Europe. Pictures on the menu make the restaurant look like a fast food restaurant.
When I asked my Swiss friends what they think of restaurants with pictures on their menu, most of them answered rather negatively and said they look cheap. But when I asked my Japanese friends the same question it seemed that having pictures and food models is quite normal here. And it’s true! Even really expensive restaurants often have images on their menu or at their entrance.