Faking It in K-Town
In the same way that K-Town serves as a rough rendition of Seoul, these plastic replicas dutifully represent their edible counterparts.
“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”
– Mr. McGuire in “The Graduate” (1967)
In NYC’s K-Town, restaurant menus abound. Eateries crowd 32nd street–everything from tiny dumpling shops to huge, traditional-style restaurants that boast indoor fountains and a wide selection of barbecued meats. At some establishments, menus are presented in large glass boxes. Others can be found simply taped to glass windows or laminated atop elaborate stands, ready for would-be customers to flip through.
Regardless of how the menu is presented, there’s often a 3-D visual, something just a little bit closer to the real thing. Plastic. Plastic smoothies, plastic kimbap (Korean sushi rolls), plastic bingsoo (shaved ice), plastic pajun (green onion pancake), the list goes on.
These emulations serve to give newcomers an idea of what they’ll get when they order. Too often the risk taker will venture into new territory, only to be flustered when the waiter or waitress arrives, pen and pad in hand. Fake food renders certain questions superfluous: Does this dish have noodles? Does it come with soy sauce? Is it spicy?
Fake food is not exclusive to Manhattan’s K-Town. Plastic meals populate restaurant windows across the globe in major Asian cities, and also in K-Towns, Chinatowns, and Little Tokyos across the US. The displays are either made entirely from a mold or might just be the actual dish covered in silicone. “They’re real. They put some kind of paste on top to make them not go bad,” explained one hostess who was standing outside a restaurant ready to welcome customers.
In Tokyo, where it all started, plastic food has become somewhat of an art form. For some tourists in Japan, purchasing a plastic shrimp or sashimi key chain is just as important as eating the actual food it mimics.
Not every bibimbap dish has its fake fried egg placed perfectly on top. The sauce of the jjampong glistens a bit too much in the light. In another display, the many colors in the japchae have faded over time.
The displays in NYC’s K-Town, however, are decidedly not of the same quality as those in Japan. The noodles of the naengmyun in the glass displays sometimes look a little gray. Not every bibimbap dish has its fake fried egg placed perfectly on top. The sauce of the jjampong glistens a bit too much in the light. In another display, the many colors in the japchae have faded over time.
In the same way that K-Town serves as a rough rendition of Seoul, these plastic replicas dutifully represent their edible counterparts. The plastics are an extended hand, endearing imperfections that act as an invitation to the most wary guest: This isn’t the real kimchi jigae, but this is what it looks like. This isn’t the real Seoul, but here’s what it looks like. This isn’t Korea, but it’s close enough—and since you’re here anyway, won’t you look around and have a bite?