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Sunday, January 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hungry Days For Fake-Food Firms -- Profits Fall For Japan's Innovators

AP

TOKYO - The stuffed crab on Eiichi Sato's table is a feast for the eyes. It looks cooked to perfection. And it was - in a lab, not a kitchen.

To connoisseurs, plastic display food is one of the great Japanese innovations of the modern age. It's a fixture in restaurants here from humble neighborhood noodle joints to fancy expense-account sushi shops.

FAKE FOOD IS PRICEY

But these are hungry days for the fake-food business. The Japanese economy is as flat as a failed souffle, and many in the industry are being hurt by the slump.

"It's been difficult," said Sato, proprietor of a sample-food shop in Tokyo's wholesale restaurant supply district of Kappabashi. "We just don't get the really big orders anymore."

Fake food tends to be far pricier than the real thing. A bowl of tempura soba - buckwheat noodles in broth, topped with deep-fried shrimp - will set you back about 4,500 yen ($42). For dessert, an ice-cream sundae goes for 3,200 yen ($30).

The real meal would cost about 1,000 yen ($9.50) for the noodles and about 600 yen ($5.50) for the sundae.

LOOKS ARE AS CRUCIAL AS TASTE

In Japanese culinary tradition, artistic presentation is at least as important as taste. Sato, for one, considers sample food to be as much an aesthetic pursuit as calligraphy or flower arranging.

"See how fresh it looks," he said, casting a loving glance on a whole trout that looks eerily like its cousins on display in the nearby fish market. "Eyes nice and bright. That's hard to get right."

Two decades ago, display food was made mainly of wax. It was an unappetizing spectacle: lumpy in texture, with colors that faded and a tendency to melt.

So Japanese researchers, working with the zeal of master chefs, turned to plastic and vinyl - and voila! Realistic renditions of everything from fried eggs to French bread to foam-capped mugs of beer.

Over the years, designs became more elaborate. A plastic pizza slice has melted cheese artfully stretching into a thin string; a fork hovers in mid-twirl over a plateful of pasta.

COMPETITION IS CUTTHROAT

Among the sample-food makers, techniques and ingredients are a jealously guarded secret. Fake-food firms worry constantly about being spied on by rivals.

In part because the competition is so cutthroat, there is no trade association. Individual companies tend to be secretive about earnings, so total sales are difficult to estimate.

Unfortunately for its purveyors, fake food lacks one guarantee of repeat business: built-in obsolescence. The stuff simply doesn't wear out. It's got a shelf life stretching into the next century.

Makers admit they might have cooked themselves into a corner by making displays so durable.

"It's very ironic, because there is less demand for replacement," said Isamu Majima, managing director of Tokyo Biken Co., one of the major manufacturers. He said the company might have to diversify to survive.

Sato, the seller, noted glumly that the same bowls of noodles and platters of sukiyaki might be staring out from restaurant display cases for years to come.

"Really, all you have to do is dust it off," he said.

But he became cheerful again, showing off his favorites: a lacquered tray of sushi, an artful rosy apple.

"There," he said. "Aren't you hungry?"

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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