Sampuru, Replica food making experience
Whenever we go to a Japanese restaurant, the first thing we do is marvel at the fake food in the front window. My kids are very intrigued by them. So real, so fake, so detailed! Restaurants throughout Japan display these plastic food replicas as a sort of menu or in-the-street advertising. These replicas are a unique part of modern Japanese culture. On my first visit to Tokyo in 2007, I bought many of these little food replicas of sushi, tempura and even plastic mugs of frothy beer on a keychain as souvenirs for friends. I have always been fascinated with the art of sampuru (sample foods) and curious where did this tradition come from and how are these replica foods actually made.
An off the beaten track experience
I am souper stoked when I learnt that we will have the opportunity to visit Gujo Hachiman, the home of sampuru. The food replica-making industry in Gujo is the largest in the nation and over 60% of them are still made in Gujo Hachiman to this day! The father of food replicas – Takizo Iwasaki – was a native of this town, and it was here in 1917 that he had his critical epiphany. As the story goes, as a child, Takizo saw a drop of hot wax fall from a candle into a puddle of cold water and was struck when, upon touching the surface, the drop bloomed into the shape of a gorgeous flower! This image would stay with him and become his inspiration as he aimed to develop a realistic way to mimic the appearance of food. In 1932, he founded the company today known as Iwasaki Co. Back in those early days, wax was thus used as the replica material, but today modern technology has taken on a much greater role. Vinyl resin is currently the preferred ingredient, as it is both longer-lasting and more malleable than wax!
Shokuhin Sample Kobo (956 Hashimotocho, Hachiman-cho, Gujo City, Gifu 501-4227)
Housed in a 150-year-old building, this food replica shop is one of the most popular destinations in Gujo Hachiman. When we entered the store,we were greeted by all these food replicas in the form of fridge magnets and keychains. They have cup ice cream replicas, sweet tarts, chocolate bars! Sample Kobo is the first food replica workshop in Japan for tourists and visitors and they have been doing so since 1991. I really like their motto, to create smiles of satisfaction and delight on customers’ faces. Carefully sculpted to look like real dishes, fake food actually makes you salivate. Today it is a recognised art form in Japan and handcrafted replica foods can cost a bomb for a full menu.
I was pretty excited to get started. We made tempura batter from yellow parrafin wax, using it to coat pre-prepared fake food items like shrimp, eggplant, peppers, and pumpkin slices. We created the koromo, or fried tempura coating, by dripping the wax from high above the water to achieve the crisp and crunchy look of the real thing. After that, we submerged the preformed coating under the water and wrap it around our chosen filling. To make a prawn tempura replica, liquid wax is dripped in strings from a paper cup at a height of about 60 cm into water heated to about 40°C. The key point here is to drip the wax from that exact height to make the tempura batter. Truly fascinating how it mimicked to almost 100%.
The instructor also demonstrated how to make a lettuce before we took our turns. She started the process by ladling white wax onto a stainless steel bain marie with water at 40°C to form a puddle on the surface. Next, she made the puddle larger by adding another ladle of green wax on one side of the white before pushing the floating mass away to the far side of the bain marie. Here came the magic. Taking both sides of the white section between thumbs and forefingers, she pulled it slowly downward underwater and back towards her. As the wax was still warm, it stretched to three or four times its original size. Lifting the delicate sheet of wax out of the water, she took the white part and scrunched it up to make into a ball. This was the core of the lettuce. Next, she wrapped the green wax around to cover it, in a folding manner, alternating between left and right, until she had a complete lettuce.
After the replica making exercise, we bought a lot of souvenirs home. A particular one that I really loved has to be this one.
Gujo Hachiman highlights
We had the opportunity to walk around Gujo Hachiman and thought I just share some highlights of this beautiful place. Gujo Hachiman offers visitors an authentic small town Japanese experience, where the traditional way of life has changed little over the years. It is a small historic and beautiful riverside town in the Gifu Prefecture that often gets overlooked by tourists. Often called “Little Kyoto” due to its many temples, it is possible to explore the quaint little town on foot without the large crowds of Kyoto. We visited Daikokuya Miso here too, an artisan mamemiso maker.