Who doesn't, on occasion, find themselves in need of a 1-cm-deep wok perched on a 2-cm-high stove, complete with lid, ladle, and a single tiny fish? Or a teapot no bigger than the tip of an adult's pinky finger, chained to a miniature thermos bearing etched flowers that will trigger nostalgia for anyone who ever lodged in a Chinese hotel before bottled water was available everywhere (remember the boiled water attendants on every floor)?.
The wok sits on a bookshelf in my office, a souvenir from our January sojourn on Penang (here, by the way, is the article that took us there). In the odd but endearingly caught-in-a-timewarp west coast town of Balik Pulau we visited the workshop of the island's only silversmith specializing in miniatures. Mr. Fong is sixty-eight years old; he started learning his craft at age thirteen.
We're not trailblazers in any respect. This guy has been written up in publications from Kuala Lumpur to Japan to Europe, and he's got the framed clips to prove it. But his notoriety in no way diminishes the uber- coolness of what he does for a living.
Mr. Fong says it took him at least ten years to master the art: 'Oh, I was terrible when I started!' he claims. 'Slowly, slowly, I do better. And now people come to Balik Pulau just to see me!'
He's very proud, and not particularly humble.
These days, he says, he's doing fewer and fewer of the sort of delicate pieces pictured above - not because of failing eyesight but because he's losing dexterity in his fingers.
A Penang treasure, Mr. Fong is, worth making your way over to Balik Pulau for.
While you're there, you might tuck into another sort of Penang treasure: laksa. Two popular stalls face off across the main road (the name of the road? I don't know, and you don't need to. It's that kind of small town).
The one occupying a front corner of Nan Guang coffee shop dishes up laksa assam and laksa siam. The soup of the former is thin but full of fish flakes. It boasts a robust fish flavor, a fair bit of heat, and lots of tamarind tang. The latter, named - obviously - for the influences bestowed on the dish by Malaysia's northern neighbor, is thickened and enriched with coconut milk and heady with lemongrass and galangal. It tastes, at first spoonful, very Thai. It's also delicious.
But it's the assam laksa dished up across the way that we love best.
This vendor's been at it for thirty-six years, and his assam laksa is fishier and more tart (with plenty of assam keping, or sour slices) and spicy than the version across the street. The sign on his cart says 'laksa lemak' but it's the assam laksa you'll be wanting to try.
Laksas siam and assam and Mr. Fong the silver miniatures artist, main street, Balik Pulau, Penang.