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THE TIMES SHOPPER

Sampling a Few of Tokyo's Long-Lasting but Plastic Food Delicacies

March 25, 1990|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

TOKYO, Japan — Food here is prepared as a feast for the eyes and body. But sometimes it's a feast only for the eyes.

We find such snacks, resembling the dishes served inside, in windows of many Japanese restaurants. The plastic models of the foods are varied: crispy Japanese tempura, plump Chinese dumplings, cheesy pizzas, frothy beverages, dewy salads, and for homesick Americans--plump and juicy hamburgers.

These plastic, food models, commonly referred to as "samples," are considered commonplace by the Japanese, sort of visual menus to tempt passers-by. But the best samples, those that are highly realistic and detailed, are being collected by foreigners, who classify them as a sort of contemporary Japanese pop art form.

Food samples have been exhibited at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for example, and are now part of the museum's permanent study collection.

Some buyers, however, aren't looking for modern art, but for fun. Practical jokers set tempting steins of cold beer or bowls of miso soup in front of unsuspecting dinner guests. Creative collectors turn sushi samples into earrings or tie tacks or use sliced pizza as a paper weight.

Quality varies and so does the price. The best samples are handmade and require painstaking work to make them realistic.

The highest quality tempura samples show every crisp flake clinging to each pink shrimp. Such tempura fakes can sell for four to five times what the real food would cost, and, if properly cared for, will last for ages . . . long after the calories of the real thing have been burned.

Less expensive sample models, mass produced in Korea, may be garish, with shrimp tails slightly too red to be believed and batter that's a bit too golden.

Or they can be made of wax rather than plastic, and therefor are more perishable. Also, the reduced prices reflect their mass-produced manufacture.

No one knows for sure, but samples first appeared during the 1920s, shortly after wax reproductions of human organs used in medical studies were introduced in Japan.

The food samples were beautiful but, because they were made of wax, the colors faded and they melted in heat.

It was inevitable that after plastic was invented it would eventually become the fake food medium. Although several factories are taking credit, nobody knows just who sculpted the first plastic samples, which appeared about 20 years ago.

Most manufacturers use the same basic manufacturing methods. First, real food is artistically arranged to make the molds that are then filled with a melted mixture of colored plastics.

After the sample shape is set, details are painted on by hand. The fat on a pork chop is crisped, cucumber skins are dappled and flecks of seaweed are added to bowls of rice in which each morsel has been individually shaped and glued in place. For complex pieces, elements are created separately, then put together like three dimensional puzzles. Each sample is unique.

The process may seem relatively simple, but competing manufacturers carefully guard their sample recipes and are constantly experimenting to develop better products.

Like great chefs, trained craftsmen teach apprentices to sample-making techniques, which are part art, part chemistry. Apprenticeships can last as long as 10 years.

Factories make special order items, but their biggest trade is in the standards, such as tempura and sushi.

These are available over-the-counter in retail stores in Kappabashi, a working-class district in northeast Tokyo, near the famous Asakusa Kannon temple nd the popular museums at Ueno. Along a five or six block span of Nishi Asakusa and several side streets, shoppers can find an extensive selection of samples.

There are platters of tomato sauce-drenched spaghetti that have vertical columns of twisted noodles erupting from the center. Atop each of these noodle volcanoes sits a silver fork.

Or feast your eyes on small porcelain pitchers perched delicately atop streams of cream cascading into cups of pitch-black coffee. Prices vary, depending upon complexity of craftsmanship.

These art works are reportedly the creation of Maizuru, one of Tokyo's finest sample manufacturers and retailers.

Maizuru's shop (1-5-17 Nishi Asakusa) displays a wide variety of samples. There are exotic drinks decorated with orchids and other flowers (about $28) and sizzling bacon and eggs that looks fresh off the grill (about $18).

California sushi rolls cost $14 to $25, and other sushi is $5 to $8. That plate of spaghetti with the airborne fork costs about $30 and the coffee cup with the poised pitcher is $300.

Another respected manufacturer, Tokyo Biken & Co. (1-5-11 Nishi Asakusa), sells steins of beer for $35 and never-melt dishes of green tea or azuki bean ice cream for $38. Fried shrimp perched temptingly on a bowl of rice costs $30. A perfectly ripe half-melon costs about $200.

Or visit Satoh Sample (3-7-4 Nishi Asakusa), a small, cluttered, well-stocked shop with samples ranging from an entire steamed fish ($50 and up) to refreshing-looking snow cones (about $22).

Loose leaves of fake lettuce (about $5 each) and individual crinkle-cut French fries (about $3 each) spill out from wooden drawers, bins and cardboard boxes. That plump and juicy hamburger for the homesick costs about $25.

Although there are sample factories in several cities in Japan, Tokyo is the only place to buy them.

How can you tell if you're getting your money's worth?

If the sample looks good enough to eat, you know it's high-quality. While prices generally are from $5 to $300, made-to-order foods can cost more. Prices depend on the work and the workmanship.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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