Decorating the front windows of restaurants in Japan are glistening, beautiful samples of what you’ll find served inside. Plates full of perfect looking food, reflecting the utmost best of what the restaurant has to offer, but with one surprising catch-- none of it is real! The eye-catching samples in food establishment display-windows are just that-- samples. Known in Japanese by the cognate サンプル (pronounced “sampuru”) these elegant food sculptures are representative of an entire art-form centered around creating hyper-realistic, looks-good-enough-to-eat fake food.
Restaurants in Japan first started using sampuru to display their wares in the early 20th century. During this time, photography and printed menus were not common or even particularly viable options for restaurants to describe their food. Additionally, a large influx of people to urban areas as Japan rapidly industrialized meant that many restaurant goers were unfamiliar with the concept of going out to eat. These two factors combined to create a need for display food in commercial dining establishments.
Some sources say the first sampuru were made out of wax in 1917 by a sculptor named Sojiro Nishio who previously had specialized in making anatomical models for doctors. While this may be the most historically accurate account, a widely popular urban story attributes the idea to business man Taziko Iwasaki, instead. Heralded as the father of the sampuru industry, Iwasaki is credited with developing the idea during a moment of inspiration while watching wax from a candle drip onto his tatami mats in 1932. Seeing the pattern of his tatami imprinted perfectly on the piece of wax, Iwasaki became convinced that he could reproduce anything with the material and soon after made his first sampuru-- a realistic dish of omu-rice made from paraffin wax. He then founded a company, Iwasaki-bei, to make food models. Nearly 100 years later, his company is still in business with the first, groundbreaking omu-rice proudly displayed in the company factory.
Approaches to making sampuru are as diverse as the foods they imitate. Each piece is handmade by a skilled artisan, often with methods that imitate the preparation of the actual food. For example, a sampuru onigiri features individually cast grains of plastic rice coated with an adhesive and then shaped into the signature triangle shape, either by hand or with a special “onigiri” mold. Up until the late 1980s, sampuru were made with wax, but due to durability concerns, the industry today largely uses PVC. Silicone molds made around real food items, such as sweet potato slices, pieces of fish, and even grains of rice, form the basis of many types of sampuru. After being carefully sculpted into their desired shape, sampuru artists use paint, glazes, and other types of coloring agents to achieve the perfect, most realistic look for whatever food they’re aiming to create.
Today, the creation and sale of sampuru is not limited only to displays for restaurants. Realistic looking fridge-magnets, keychains, and even cell phone cases all made to resemble favorite foods are also very popular, particularly among tourists in Japan. Shops that sell souvenir sampuru can be found in Tokyo in the Kappabashi district, in Osaka around Dougya-suji, and of course in Gujo Hachiman, the hometown of Taziko Iwasaki himself where there are no fewer than 10 sampuru factories.
Souvenir sized sampuru can also be purchased online, and occasionally here at Maido. Our housewares and toy stock is constantly rotating, and sometimes shifts to include small sampuru! Check our gifts section for keychains, fridge magnets and phone charms shaped like your favorite sushi, sweets and street foods on your next visit!