Irresistible food models in front of restaurants in Japan are true-to-life imitations — which are becoming souvenir favorites of international visitors. From fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, desserts and cakes, to cooked meals like ramen, curry, tempura, broiled fish, and sushi, all items in this model feast are handmade.
Some say food models were first created during the early Showa period (1930s) for an Osaka restaurant that demanded food replicas to promote its menu. Models that clearly showed real meals served seemed to attract more customers, leading to popular displays in front of many shops. Now, elaborate models show delicious details of foods served by each restaurant and are custom-made by virtuoso food model craftsmen.
These models look so real that some people may try to eat them. The secret of this realism is how artisans make molds of real food and colorize the models to appear even more appetizing than the real thing, says Katsuji Kaneyama, a 40-year career food model-maker.
“Models are mostly made of vinyl resin and wax with oil paint, usually in more than a single color. We don’t just use simple white paint for white foods such as mochi (Japanese rice cake) or vanilla ice cream but add a bit of brown, black, or yellow paint to create an exclusive white color that matches the food.
“Only subtle color can express food softness and texture. I tell young staff members to go back to the original if they’re not sure. But you gain expertise in this work, so you can judge which colors to mix immediately after looking at the real food. Good artisans can make the colors they need, quickly.”