Love that Plastic Food

 

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If you've ever ordered what you thought would be Mexican tacos in Japan and ended up with octopus (tako), you'll know what I mean when I say that the plastic-food displays outside many restaurants in Japan can be lifesavers. These visual menus, with yummy-looking fixed-price meals complete with prices, often lasso me in when I'm hungry and on the run. For foreign visitors who don't read a lick of Japanese, these telltale food displays may be especially helpful in distinguishing between, say, a noodle shop and a bathhouse.

Food samples apparently originated in Japan more than 100 years ago, when a sudden influx of exotic, Western dishes prompted some entrepreneurial restaurateurs to display real dishes outside their doors to advertise unfamiliar foods. Of course, it's easy to imagine just how unappealing real dishes quickly became (that is, if they survived the appetite of any passing stray dog), but it wasn't until the 1950s that food modeling found its niche.

Originally made of wax, today's models are made of plastic and sometimes look better than the real thing. And as with many things in Japan, they have been elevated to an art, with master crafters well respected in the food-sample industry. In Japan, plastic-food displays are prevalent at restaurants in department stores, tourist destinations, train stations, and shopping malls. Even restaurants without display cases will sometimes set up a tray outside their front door with a plastic rendition of that day's lunch special, which may include the likes of miso soup, pickled vegetables, rice, and a main dish like fish or pork. Of course, if you ate all your meals only at restaurants with food displays, you'd be missing out on a lot of Japan's best cuisine, since a majority of the country's restaurants? including the most exclusive and traditional? wouldn't dream of cluttering up their entryway with unsightly displays of plastic food.

I, for one, like plastic food so much, I've bought them as souvenirs (in places like Osaka's Sennichimae Doguya-suji and Tokyo's Kappabashi-dougugai Dori kitchenware districts), from sushi dangling from key chains to full-blown models (which, by the way, do not come inexpensively). I'll never know what the airline baggage inspector thought of my fake spaghetti dish, with its fork suspended in the air by a few strands of pasta. At a spaghetti dinner party I once gave, a prankster placed it on someone else's plate. I'm proud to say she had no problem distinguishing the model from the real thing. Then again, it may have been that fork that gave it away.

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