Tiny food is big business in Malaysia
Eric Siow's char kuey teow is making me hungry: fat flat noodles piled high with plump pink prawns and bean sprouts poking through. Sadly its proportions are barely a mouthful and, even if it were bigger, it wouldn't taste anything like the popular plateful of Malaysia’s northern Penang state. That's because this tiny, inch-wide plate of noodles is a piece of miniature food art – a hobby that's growing big in Malaysia and providing a lucrative livelihood for those with nimble fingers.
Siow discovered his love for miniature-making in 2011 when curiosity led him to sign up for a miniature food class while living in Singapore. It's a curiosity which turned into what Siow calls his “obsession” and a business, Miniarture Concepts. Siow sells his creations from a ready-made collection of food items and dollhouse accessories while also undertaking custom work for clients looking for something more specific.
“My customers come from all over the world,” he says. “I get requests from people looking for replica kampung kitchens from the sixties and seventies and I also get requests from companies for client gifts. Sometimes restaurants want replicas of their signature dishes and sometimes people don't want to buy, they want to learn how to make. It's quite a varied business.”
Siow says he has taught students as young as five years old and as old as 65 years old but admits that few have the patience required to really become skilled in the art of miniature food making, which requires perseverance and a willingness to try new things.
“I don't just use modelling clay, I also combine a lot of weird materials to get the best aesthetic. Art sand, dry leaves, moss, baby powder, wax; those are just some of the materials I use to get realistic results. I also use a kitchen blow-torch to grill my work and sometimes I put them in the freezer. It depends on what kind of effect I'm looking for. Getting creative with materials is one of the best parts.”
Having previously worked as both a pastry chef and a graphic designer, Siow believes he has a unique perspective on the world of miniature food. “Having a background as a designer helps me make precise judgements on colour and texture,” he says. “I used to design recipe books and I was involved in a lot of food photography so those skills have helped a lot too. I've always worked with food and design, so discovering miniature food art was like finding the missing piece of the puzzle for me.”
Spending years honing his skills through books, video tutorials and the internet, Siow now specialises in creating nostalgic gastro-scenes from years gone by, with every last detail, right down to the newsprint on the tiny wrappers, meticulously accounted for. In future, he plans to build a complete street scene of a Malaysian night food market. “My ambition is to have a personal exhibition one day,” he says. “I want to show people that this isn't just a hobby, it's an important form of preserving art.”
Fellow miniature artist, Pui Wan Lim, agrees. She started making tiny sculptures in 2007 while still in school, inspired by a book her sister gave her on doll house miniatures. Now she too specialises in tiny replica kitchens and retro provision stores complete with tiny food, utensils and kitchen appliances, perfecting her skills while studying technical engineering in college.
Like Siow, Lim also enjoys the creative challenges of producing life-like tiny sculptures that look good enough to eat. “I really love the process,” she says. “There's a lot of trial and error involved in making items look realistic, and I feel like I’m learning and growing a lot from that process of success and failure. I like experimenting with different techniques, like using a toothbrush to add texture, for example.”
Upon graduation last year, she decided to pursue her hobby as a full-time business and launched Pico Worm. For Lim, being a miniature artist gives her an opportunity to preserve important aspects of Malaysian culture. “I had a client recently from Singapore who wanted me to make her a replica of her Grandpa's provisions shop, which had closed down, to give him as a gift. That was a really fun project to work on. I made the shop using photos and the client's verbal description; every detail had to be perfect, right down to the decorative tiles and the items for sale,” she says.
“I find it really meaningful to do projects like that,” she muses. “Something that touches other people and keeps their memories alive. The client sent me a picture of her Grandpa with the finished shop and he looks so happy. That's a really good feeling.”
But not all tiny food artists are modelling in nostalgia. Putting a modern spin on tiny food sculpting is Ling Hooi Yin. She's been making tiny food since 2010, when as a Multimedia Design student, she decided to look for a creative and inexpensive hobby to keep her busy between studies. “I just really liked the idea of tiny food and the creativity behind it. It's a challenge to make the food as realistic as possible but when it turns out well, it's really satisfying,” she says.
Hooi Yin's hobby quickly became a part-time business when her classmates began placing orders, and after a while, she began specialising in wearable food miniatures like Iced Gem Biscuit earrings and intricate Ang Ku Kueh charm bracelets. “I found people didn't really know what to do with the miniatures even though they really liked them. By turning them into jewellery, it just gives people more options,” she explains.
By 2014, she had launched her brand, Tiny Pinc, opened a studio, was producing up to 500 miniature pieces a week, and had started to run regular workshops to teach others the art of tiny food. “People want to know how to make my most popular items like Char Kuey Teow and Nasi Lemak; the Iced Gem Biscuits are also really popular because they're so cute,” she says.
Hooi Yin says she enjoys passing on her skills but admits that some dishes are easier served up than others. “Roast pork is the most tedious item to make because it takes a really long time to build up the layers of fat and meat and skin. I only make that when I'm in the right mood,” she says, laughing. “It looks really easy but it's not.”
As the appetite for tiny food grows in Malaysia, Hooi Yin is busier than ever, selling at pop-up markets and stores in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. She's also crowdfunding for a bigger studio to expand her operation. But she's not complaining; like Siow and Lim, she never imagined she'd one day turn her tiny passion into a thriving business.
“When I started out, it was quite an obscure hobby in Malaysia and it was difficult to find the materials to make the miniature food. Now the tools are much more accessible and my workshops have become really popular. Being able to do this as a job is a dream come true, really.”
Follow our tiny food artists on Instagram for mouthwatering inspiration.
Eric Siow @Little_craving_st
Pui Wan Lim @Picoworm
Ling Hooi Yin @TinyPinc Miniatures
*Photos courtesy of the artists