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Ersatz eggs, fake fish, sham ham? US craves Japan's vinyl victuals

I brushed the rubber steak with burnt-umber paint, browning it just the way I like my meat done. ''Medium rare, eh?'' Mr. Ibara mused. ''Now cook it well done. And add some grill lines.'' I deftly applied more brown lacquer and presto , before you could say ''microwave,'' the rump steak was darkened to perfection.

It was a crash course in bogus beef and vinyl vegetables, instructed by Hideo Ibara, head chef/painter at Tokyo Biken, one of Japan's largest and oldest plastic-food companies. Here artists are hectically crafting, with tantalizing accuracy, everything from tempura to hash browns for Japanese restaurants, which display these replicas as 3-D ''menus'' in their windows.

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Welcome to Tokyo's brave new world of shokuhin sanpuru: fake food, that booming multimillion-dollar industry which long ago captured the stomachs and minds of the Japanese and is now assaulting America. From plastic-chocolate-chip-cookie key rings to replicas of McDonald's French fries to shows such as ''The Real Art of Fake Food,'' now on exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico, Americans are growing ever more familiar with food that is definitely not the real thing.

The fake-food capital of the world is Kappabashi, a working-class neighborhood in northeast Tokyo that also happens to be the hub of Japan's catering industry. Here chefs roam alleys shopping for throwaway chopsticks by the gross and miniature bamboo mats in which to roll sushi. In Kappabashi you can get anything you want - except something to eat. ''Let them eat fake'' is the shopkeeper's proud motto around these parts. Yes, all that mouthwatering foie gras and chicken teriyaki, all those hot fudge sundaes, are nothing more than washable, nontoxic, polyvinyl chloride.

While they may sound less than delectable, those ersatz lamb curries and fake pork chops are welcome sights to hungry, non-Japanese-speaking customers who drag waiters to the sidewalk, point at dinner, and rest assured that a reasonable facsimile will arrive at their table. Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the models put customers, Western and Japanese, at ease. They remove the guesswork from ordering: What you see is what you get. And what you get these days in Kappabashi will suit every taste bud and pocketbook: a $2 piece of shrimp sushi, a $200 raw-horsemeat display, a towering $2,000 wedding cake.

Kappabashi's fake-food sales run around $40 million a year. Tokyo Biken and two other companies (Maizuru and Iwasaki) compete as fiercely for that business as Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors ever did over automobiles. Leading Kappabashi's Big Three is Iwasaki, whose president, Minoru Iwasaki, has personally sculptured and painted plastic models of more than 60 fish species. He takes epicurean delight in fake food.

''The ingredients are different from those used in a real kitchen, but that's the only difference,'' Mr. Iwasaki once said. ''In every other respect it's just the same. All our food is made to order, based on the real thing and on the customer's photos and sketches. I appoint the staff to different departments - Japanese, Chinese, Western-style, snacks - just like a boss in the world of restaurants.''

Fake food, like any other Japanese craft, requires lengthy apprenticeships. Years of painting provolone and slicing lotus root are necessary, for example, before one graduates to imitation sushi. Decades must be spent mastering soba noodles and apple pie before one is permitted to handle a lobster or Spanish omelet. The ''recipe'' for romaine lettuce remains a jealously guarded trade secret, and industrial espionage among these vinyl and hot-wax alchemists is a fact of life. What is no longer a secret to anyone, however, is the present Japanese notion of working up America's appetite for plastic food.

In 1975, the 51-year-old Iwasaki company (which employs 2,000 craftsmen and claims 75 percent of Japan's plastic-food sales) opened a 43-member satellite factory in Torrance, Calif. Iwasaki's clientele in Japan has been primarily restaurant owners, but according to Harry Fujita, president of Iwasaki Images of America, 60 percent of the $1.5 million US business has been in gifts and novelties: chocolate-chip-cookie key rings, fried-egg night lights, broccoli napkin rings, asparagus pens, digital pear watches, Swiss-cheese magnets, and erasers that look - and smell - like corn on the cob.

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Mr. Fujita said this year's ''hit item'' is Iwasaki's ''Lett-us-hide,'' a $15 plastic head of iceberg lettuce wrapped in cellophane and hollow in the middle. Leaving for the holidays? Stash your diamonds and pearls in the vinyl lettuce and while you're gone, nestle your valuables safely among the carrots and cauliflower in the refrigerator crisper.

For restaurants, Iwasaki also has an 800-item catalog offering soup to nuts - not to mention banana splits, BLTs on toast, a choice of eight kinds of eggs (deviled to scrambled), and prime rib (send $27.50 ''plus an extra $3 for grill lines'').

How do vinyl burgers play in Peoria? ''It took 50 years to perfect the replica-food craft in Japan, and it may take a little while to catch on in American restaurants,'' Fujita says. ''It is certainly applicable anywhere. Why should eating in a restaurant be different than buying a pair of boots?'' he asks, apparently not referring to roadside steaks that taste like shoe leather. ''Consumers want to examine, touch, and weigh the merchandise,'' he comments. ''Why should food be different?''

Fujita predicts plastic food will take by storm America's shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. Among his newest customers are Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, International House of Pancakes, Gloria Marshall Figure Salons, and the US Navy.

McDonald's is testing plastic fries and shakes in five San Fernando Valley restaurants; Hickory Farms of Ohio has bought sample salami and cheese ''party platters'' for 600 of its stores; Pizza Hut is negotiating a $2 million deal with Iwasaki to design a vinyl salad bar for the nationwide chain.

Meanwhile, Fujita continues to supply department stores, delis, gourmet shops , nutrition classes, and Hollywood back lots. He has provided plastic-chicken barbecues for ''Fantasy Island'' and bogus midnight buffets for ''Love Boat.'' The biggest banquet so far went to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry - 13 ,000 pieces of plastic food.

America's taste for fake doesn't stop at science museums. Art critics and gallery owners are raving about the ''superrealism'' of Japan's plastic models. Not long ago a gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, exhibited a series of vinyl meals on glass-encased pedestals.

Last December a swank Milan art dealer served Italians a similar feast. Last summer in SoHo, Yoshiko Ebihara, a Tokyo-born designer living in New York, opened her new Gallery 91, a contemporary Japanese design gallery, with an exhibition of Kappabashi's finest vinyl victuals.

''We had peeled bananas, sectioned oranges, melting ice cream cones, shelled peanuts, pepperoni pizza with bubbling cheese, and, oh yes, everybody did love the jar of pickles,'' Ms. Ebihara said. ''Fourteen newspapers and television stations covered the New York opening. The reviewers all said 'eat dinner before seeing the show.' ''

The ''Real Art of Fake Food'' exhibit will travel from the Albuquerque Museum to the Children's Museum in Boston. Ms. Ebihara observed, ''Japan still can't understand why Americans are putting this stuff in museums.''

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