The Culinary Art of ‘Sampuru’
By Supriti Malhotra

The ‘Land of the Rising Sun,’ Japan, is famous for its multi-faceted culture, from Geishas to Origami, Manga to Anime, and Sumo wrestling to Kabuki theater. Even Japan’s fascinating tradition of creating realistic fake food, Sampuru (derived from English word ‘sample’) is considered culinary art – to the extent that they are being displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The origin of Sampuru was not a pleasant one. According to journalist Yasunobu Nose, “The original craftsman was working for doctors and making models for pathological studies, such as skin diseases and human organs before he was asked to make food samples for a restaurant.”

In 1917, Kyoto’s Soujiro Nishio, who designed anatomical wax models, made the first food sample. Sampuru found its way to Tokyo when a department store commissioned Tsumoto Sudo, another anatomical model maker, to make wax food samples in 1920. However, Takizo Iwasaki is considered the father of faux foods for popularizing Sampuru.

Iwasaki’s journey into Sampuru began in 1926 when Takizo Iwasaki left his hometown of Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture. He went to Osaka where he encountered replica foods. After months of experimentation, Iwasaki completed his first replica of an omelet. Soon, Takizo Iwasaki began selling his wax food models as display props for restaurants and grocery stores.

Iwasaki’s food replicas soon became a hit with American soldiers and tourists after World War II; people who were unfamiliar with Japanese food. Subsequently, Iwasaki Be-I, founded by Takizo Iwasaki in 1932, became one of the biggest producers of plastic food samples in Japan.

In the 1970s to 1980s, realising the vulnerability of wax in hot conditions, manufacturers began using resin for its durability. Nowadays, Sampuru are mostly made of plastics and PVC for longevity, using silicon molds for detailed expression.

The faux foods, also called ‘shokuhin samples’ (food samples), are handcrafted with painstaking precision. The process begins with creating a silicon mold for the food to be replicated. The mold is crafted either by pressing the food into a mold or duplicated with the help of sketches or pictures. Liquid plastic (vinyl chloride) is poured into the mold and baked in an oven until the plastic hardens. The food model is then separated from the mold, cooled, and painted with an airbrush or by hand. Some foods requiring detailing are replicated by using techniques similar to the preparation of the real dish. For example, sushi is reproduced by mixing individual mold cast plastic rice grains with an adhesive, then shaped by hand.

Since its beginning in the early 20th century, the art of Sampuru has grown into a multi-billion yen artisanal industry, evolving from restaurant displays to personal products like keychains to iPhone cases.

Gujo Hachiman is a prized tourist attraction for Sampuru enthusiasts, with Iwasaki’s original wax omelet on display and an annual contest held for artistic Sampuru creations. Kappabashi in Tokyo is also popular for plastic food omiyage (souvenirs).

Sampuru is not limited to restaurant displays and souvenirs. For those interested in dipping their hands in the art of Sampuru, budding fake food artists can attend classes at Iwasaki’s Original Food Samples Shop Ganso Sample in Kappabashi, Tokyo and at Fake Food Japan in Osaka.

An important aspect of Japanese culture, Sampuru has featured in Wim Wender’s Tokyo Ga, photographer Norbert Schoerner’s book, ‘Nearly Eternal’, and journalist Yasunobu Nose’s book, ‘Me de taberu Nihonjin’, (Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes). Sampuru has even made an appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records, with Akiko Obata who holds the record for the largest collection of plastic prepared food items.

With Google recently acknowledging Sampuru’s popularity with a doodle celebrating Takizo Iwasaki’s 121st birthday, plastic food art’s contribution to 20th-century culinary zeitgeist has been firmly established.

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