SINCE MOVING TO JAPAN, a lot of things have struck me as weird (I mean different) but one of the things I was intrigued with was the plastic food samples in front of restaurants. Sometimes in a display case, sometimes on a little table by the door, but always life-like replicas of whatever food the restaurant serves. In our orientation to Japan, given by the Navy, one speaker said samples can make it easier for a non-Japanese speaker to order at a restaurant when they can’t read the menu. I assumed that meant these samples are only found in places where non-Japanese speakers eat.
How wrong I was.
In six months in Japan I have seen these samples, called sampuru, everywhere. I have seen plastic pizza, beer, salads, soup, sushi, curry, everything. I have touched every example that I have the opportunity to do so and I have watched people use the samples as a menu before entering a restaurant.
It is an art. And I love it.
These okonomiyaki sampuru show the raw ingredients that will go into the grilled “pancake.” The bowl in the center is a seafood combo, picturing asari (a little clam), ika (squid), and ebi (shrimp). The sign in front of the sampuru says these will be cooked Kyoto style, which means all of the ingredients are mixed together and cooked on a griddle. The other popular way to cook this, Hiroshima style, is similar to a thin crepe on top of the meat and vegetables on top of noodles.
This lunch set plate is similar to what is found in an o-bento, but since it is served in a restaurant, it doesn’t come with the box. This sampuru shows Naporitan (Japanese pasta with tomato or ketchup based sauce), gomai (spinach with sesame and miso dressing), egg, potato salad, stir fry with gobo root (burdock root) and a sandoicchi (sandwich). I asked a friend about this particular combination and she said, “That might be a kids meal.”
Sampuru exists not only in the display windows of eateries, but also on keychains, cell phone charms, and attached to purses. They are sold in Tokyo’s Kappabashi-dori (kitchen town) and at little souvenir shops all over Japan. This Chirimen Sushi models (woven silk, not plastic) are for sale.
This restaurant sells pizza and steak. It’s hard to tell, but the pictures on the bottom are showing sauce that will, if you are smart enough to order this dish, be poured all over your food. From left to right are hambagu (hamburger steak with demi-glace), beefu steki (beef steak with tomato sauce), and the classic katsu kare (pork curry).
There are many types and occasions for o-bento (bento box). People pack them for school or work, buy them at the airport, order them at a lunch restaurant, or take them on picnics. The list of combinations of foods that can go inside is long. This is an example of Shōkadō bentō because of the black lacquered box.
This linguini and clams sampuru are on sale at a store that sells models of commonly sold dishes for resturants, but chefs can also have them made specifically for the dishes that they create. The process of making individual sampuru looks a lot like cooking.
In case you don’t know what a beer looks like, here is a sample. Note the three inch head on it, which is probably very accurate to what you will receive. I recently watched a demonstration on how to achieve that at home. The rest of the sampuru here are appetizers, common at a western style bar or izakaya.
I know these are plastic, but if I saw this I would have an urge to get all that sushi out of the sun. This is another example of a common food that many vendors sell and don’t need a personalized model.
Even western restaurants use sampuru to educate possible customers. There are plenty of foreign chains and western restaurants in Japan (I live a bike ride away from a Red Lobster for example) and many have plastic French fries and pizza out front.