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 the windows of restaurants in Japan. They entice customers into the eateries and simplify menu ordering for foreigners. And I’m learning to make them – thanks to The Peninsula hotel’s Fun With Faux Food academy programme.
There are some 200 food sample factories in Japan but Yamato is one of the few making small batches by hand. Second generation owner, Mr Yuichi Ito, was born in Gujyo-Hachiman in the Gifu prefecture, birthplace of the food sample industry in the 1940s, and still known as “wax food town”.
The windows of his workshop are packed with incredibly realistic replicas of sushi, yakitori, grilled fish and Western dishes. Originally they were made from wax but now they are more durable PVC that won’t melt in restaurant windows.
I’m feeling intimidated but my teachers, Yuichi, his son Ryo and their assistant, Aomi Chino, couldn’t be more welcoming with beaming their smiles.
We start with tempura – or more precisely its side serving of lettuce. Ryo had 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. The oblong I’ve made is not as uniformed 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 away. Then something miraculous happens: a lettuce shape appears. “Cute!” says Ryo.
The experience reminds me of the retro British TV show, The Generation Game, where hapless contestants attempt to make something after a talented pro has demonstrated. They usually failed woefully much to the hilarity of the audience but with the Itos at hand there’s no chance of any disasters here.
On to the tempura. A plastic “shrimp” and “pumpkin” are waiting on the table, it’s my job to make the batter. Having watched Ryo’s demo I drip yellow liquid into the warm water in a zig zag to make a Jackson Pollock like pattern. Then I repeat in reverse, careful to get the height right: not too high or low. The resulting bubbled matter definitely resembles batter. I’m getting into this.
Next is ramen. I could have made curry or pizza but have chosen Japanese dishes. Frankly I’m nervous about attempting this one, eying the realistic example next to me. But it’s more straightforward than I imagined.
I’m instructed to pick up a batch of “noodles” and place them, vertically, in a bowl of warm water then wrap them centrifugally. Easy peasy I think, but there’s more to come. I’m told to pick up three strands at a time, form a circle with them in the air, followed by a figure of eight then place them in another bowl. It’s fiddly and I’m painfully slow 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, who’s driven me here in the hotel mini and is translating, proffers a packed lunch; great timing as I’m strangely ravenous due to the tempura and ramen making.
Sundaes are made with silicon so the tops – the “whipped cream” – are surprisingly bendy. I choose chocolate ice cream so Aomi adds a brown dye to the silicon in a piping bag. Home bakers will come into their own here for I’m to pipe the mixture, circular wise, 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 jammed with hand made, plastic accoutrements: wafers, cookies, strawberries and cherries. It’s refreshingly fun to choose from, thinking about the different heights for the design and then placing them strategically. I must admit to being tempted to tuck into my creation. I go back to the Peninsula and order a real chocolate sundae at Peter.