Sampuru, the Art of Plastic Food


WordsClémence Leleu

During a first trip to Japan, these are just one of those little details that will inspire wonder in travellers. Placed behind shop vitrines or in restaurant windows, sampurus are everywhere. What are sampuru you ask? They are food made of plastic, silicone or resin, perfectly imitating a bowl of ramen, some sushi or yakitori or even a beer. Often they are a real blessing for foreigners who haven’t yet mastered Japanese, simplifying their order. 

When you look at them, it’s like tasting a dish for the first time, explains Yasunobu Nose, journalist and author of the book Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes which details these culinary artworks. 

From medicine to fine dining


The name sampuru derives from the English, sample, and comes from the Japanese mountains. Initially, this reproduction technique was developed by doctors who needed reproductions of organs for pathology studies, explains Nose. In the 1920s, a restaurant owner called upon one of these craftsmen to reproduce the food served in his establishment. 

The pieces used to be made from wax and became particularly popular in the 1940s for two reasons: some believe that restaurants exhibited the objects in their windows in order to help European and American workers who were in Japan rebuilding the country following the war. Others have explained this growth due to the new influx of dishes in restaurants, allowing Japanese diners the chance to discover new menus before trying them. 

A long tradition of savoir faire


While certain establishments have folded to the use of industrialisation in order to cater to a higher volume of products, there remain a number of studios in Japan where specialised artisans hand make these sampuru. This delicate savoir faire was documented by the filmmaker Wim Wenders in the seventh section of his film Tokyo Ga in 1985.

These studios develop the majority of foods and drink to order, normally working from a photo sent by the restaurant owner. The price of the artificial food is often far higher than the real thing created in a kitchen.

To get a better look, head to the district of Asakusa in Tokyo, notably the street Kappabashi-dori. Impossible to miss, there is a huge head of an Italian chef perched atop a building, with his eyebrows raised and thick moustache, marking the start of the road. 

Between shops for cooking utensils you’ll find stores full with hundreds of these false dishes, transformed into practical little souvenirs to take home in your suitcase. Makis, udon and okonomiyaki can take the form of key rings or magnets which fly off shelves, meaning restaurant owners need call on these studios more frequently than before.