Make your own plastic food on Peninsula Tokyo course
One of the few Japanese sample-food makers still working by hand shows hotel guests how to make fake ramen, tempura, and ice cream sundaes out of plastic
I'm standing at a kitchen sink in Tokyo shaping a sheet of submerged plastic into a "lettuce". Fake food samples are a familiar sight in restaurants in Japan and Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong. They entice customers inside and simplify ordering for foreigners. And I'm learning to make them - thanks to The Peninsula hotel Tokyo's Fun of Faux Food academy programme.
There may be as many as 200 sample factories operating in Japan - and Yamato is one of the few making small batches by hand. Second generation owner Yuichi Ito was born in Gujo Hachiman in the Gifu prefecture, which has been a centre of the food sample industry since the 1940s and is still known as "wax food town".
The windows of his workshop are packed with replicas of sushi, yakitori, grilled fish and Western dishes. Originally they were made from wax but now they use a more durable PVC.
I'm feeling intimidated but my teachers, Yuichi, his son Ryo and their assistant Aomi Chino couldn't be more welcoming with their beaming smiles.
We start with tempura - or its side serving of lettuce. Ryo made it look so easy: a scoop of white liquid lowered gently into the warm water then spread into an oblong with the spoon, three scoops of green liquid gently lined along three sides. My oblong is not as uniform as Ryo's so I fear my lettuce is going to be a giant monstrosity unlike Ryo's neat baby one.
Then the fun begins. I'm told to dip my hands into the water and pull the plastic downwards. Remarkably, a definite lettuce texture and colour emerges. Suddenly, I'm directed to scoop the sides of the oblong together. It's all quite frantic and I keep scooping. Then something miraculous happens: a lettuce shape appears. "Cute!" says Ryo.
The experience reminds me of the British TV show, The Generation Game, where hapless contestants tried to copy something made by a pro. They usually failed woefully, to much hilarity, but with the Itos at hand there's no chance of that here.
On to the tempura. A plastic "shrimp" and "pumpkin" are waiting on the table, it's my job to make the batter. I drip yellow liquid into the warm water in a zigzag to make a Jackson Pollock like pattern. Then I repeat in reverse, careful to get the height right. The resulting bubbled matter resembles batter.
Next is ramen. I'm nervous about this, eyeing the realistic example next to me. But it's more straightforward than I imagined.
I pick up a batch of "noodles" and place them, vertically, in a bowl of warm water then lay them in a circle in the base. Easy, I think, but there's more. I'm told to pick up three strands at a time, form a circle with them, followed by a figure of eight, then put them in another bowl. It's fiddly but I find it strangely relaxing.
Task eventually completed, I pour a golden gelatin over the whole lot to form the broth. I'm pretty pleased with this but Ryo has spotted several air bubbles so patiently flicks a cigarette lighter over each one until they're dispersed. Meanwhile, I soak some ready-made plastic spring onions, meat, spinach and bamboo shoots and, to use the technical term, knock them about a bit to look more realistic. Then I place them, artfully I think, on the top of broth. Et voila, ramen!
As a finale there's an ice cream sundae to make, but first my Peninsula guide proffers a packed lunch; great timing, as I'm strangely ravenous due to the tempura and ramen making.
Sundaes are made with silicone so the tops - the "whipped cream" - are surprisingly bendy. I choose chocolate ice cream so Aomi adds a brown dye to the silicone in a piping bag. I pipe the mixture, in a circular fashion, into a glass to create a chocolate and vanilla swirl. Then for the tricky bit: piping the whipped cream topping. The results are impressive but I must admit to getting a lot of help from Ryo.
Yuichi presents a tray of plastic accoutrements: wafers, biscuits, strawberries and cherries. It's fun to choose, thinking about different heights for the design and placing them strategically. I am tempted to tuck into my creation. I go back to the Peninsula and order a real chocolate sundae.
The programme runs Fridays to Tuesdays, subject to availability, for guests of The Peninsula Tokyo and costs between 40,000 yen (HK$2,490) and 60,000 yen depending on how many take part (maximum of three).