What is Mamak?

Back in Penang, a group of friends will get together and one of them will suggest to the others, “Anyone hungry?…”,  “…let’s go to a Mamak stall!”

Countless of times, someone will suggest that. It is a Malaysian culture dated back centuries ago when migrants from South India immigrated to Malaysia for work in the plantation and agriculture land. The South Indians who immigrated to Malaysia are Tamil Muslim, which means eating pork is forbidden. Chicken, beef, lamb, mutton (goat) and fish are used in mamak cooking, especially in curries.

Mamak food is popular among Malaysians, and in Penang with the local Chinese, Indians and Malays alike, especially the young people. It is a place where people go for a casual, cheerful and cheap meal. It is a sociable outdoor eating place, almost like a Chinese kopitiam except it is usually open all day and throughout the night.

Mamak food can be eaten on a street side “hawker style” stall – serving mee goreng, maggi goreng, mee rebus, pasembur, satay – or, dine in at an open air restaurant or cafe serving “nasi kandar” – rice with your choice of meat and fish curries or vegetable curries – and, “murtabak“, “roti canai” and other types of roti.

There is no other place in Southeast Asia to sample a true, authentic mamak food than in Malaysia and Singapore, and I have to admit that Penang and Kuala Lumpur serves the best mamak food in the region.

But, right here closer to home in Melbourne, there is only one Mamak stall. Actually, an Australian hybrid mamak style restaurant recently opened less than 2 weeks.  I merely found out about this place after reading a food critic’s review in The Age newspaper.

Mamak offers a small and selective menu of Malaysian mamak style food at a reasonable price. There is a growing interest on Malaysian food in Melbourne. Mamak Melbourne is a nice addition to ignite a public interest in the diverse food culture of Malaysia.

I believe every Malaysians who live in Melbourne are a real die hard fan of Malaysian food, and will travel to seek the best Malaysian place to eat. Since moving to Melbourne almost a year ago, I have tried a few of them including driving a fair distance to Box Hill to try “Madam Kwong’s Kitchen” – a nyonya style cafe.

After a late night out with my partner and a couple of friends visiting from Sydney, I woke up an hour later than I used to on a Sunday 9 am. My partner was still in bed. We had a great time eating out at one of my all time favourite little Thai cafe, “Red Petite” and an after dinner cabaret show at “The Butterfly Club“. In my next post, I will share my culinary journey at the little “Red Petite”.

I already planned what I was going to do when I woke up. I knew that I wanted to visit the Chinese Museum in Chinatown to celebrate the “Mooncake Festival” which I have posted here. I also knew that I wanted to have my lunch at Mamak Melbourne.

I arrived early at Mamak Melbourne slightly after 11:30 am Sunday late morning. There were Malaysians after Malaysians walking into the restaurant before and after me. I was fortunate to get a table. It was a large open dining room with low wooden stools and long benches. It was tight, congested and noisy which gives the place an authentic feel of a modernised Malaysian kopitiam with a mixed of Australian modern flare.

It didn’t take long for the place to be completely packed in less than 30 minutes.

I was pleased to get a side table all to myself against one side of the wall. I felt comfortable and not rushed, even though the place was very busy. It was fun watching all the actions, and all the Malaysians eagerly waiting for their food to arrive. I suspected the place was 90 – 95 percent filled with Malaysians. The place looks like it can fit close to 80 diners. There was a good proportion number of FOH staffs serving the customers. The restaurant has two kitchens – one in the front as the “roti station” and the back kitchen preparing the other dishes. The front “roti station” is as theatrical as the dining room itself. Patrons waiting outside in a queue get to watch the “roti man” flipping, stretching and tossing the roti into the air.

As a lone diner, I have limited choices on how much I can eat. I knew main dishes were out, so I chose a half dozen chicken satay and a lamb murtabak with a glass of warm “teh tarik“. Teh tarik is a traditional drink usually accompanied with eating the roti.

First came my teh tarik. It was foamy on top as it should be. Sweet but not over sweetened with condensed and evaporated milk. I had teh tarik at two other Malaysian cafes in Melbourne. Mamak Melbourne’s teh tarik is the best and has the most authentic taste and flavour as the one served in Malaysia. At $3.50 a glass, it is still cheaper than a cup of tea or coffee at the other cafes in Melbourne.

Next, was the chicken satay. When the plate was placed on my table, I could tell that it was going to be good. I could smell the satay aromatic sauce and the chargrilled satay from the table. The sensation of the smell wafting through my nostril was all I needed to stick my first satay stick into the thick, creamy and nutty orange red sauce.

This has to be the best Malaysian chicken satay I ever had in Australia! The meat was well marinated, brushed and chargrilled carefully without drying the meat. It was tender, juicy and moist with a silky smoothness to the flesh. The satay sauce was the best satay sauce I ever had in Australia. It was rich, thick and creamy with a huge complex flavour, chunky nutty texture and a tingling after taste of the mild chili in my mouth asking for more. It was that good that I had to finish all the sauce.

The satay was $9 for half a dozen, or $16 for a dozen.

I was actually getting quite full. I was glad that my lamb murtabak took another 10 minutes before arriving on my table. It was a big serve. A thin pancake like of egg and flour mixture filled with chunky pieces of spiced lamb, finely sliced cabbage and onions. It comes with two types of mild, curry dipping sauce and a tiny dollop of sambal chili on the side.

After winning my heart with the chicken satay, the lamb murtabak was a slight let down. There was not much flavour to the dish. The filling and spiced lamb was quite bland. The tiny dollop of chili sambal was less than generous. It was the only saviour of this dish, but not enough to spread around the murtabak which was overstuffed with shredded cabbage. The murtabak would have been better if it was filled with spiced minced lamb, rather than the slightly tough and chewy chunky lamb meat. This dish cost $11.50.

Overall, Mamak Melbourne is a good place to eat if you are wondering what mamak food is all about. It is a taste of Malaysia and a taste of Asia. I will certainly be back again to try the other dishes.

As I left the restaurant, there was a small crowd queuing up to get in. Mamak Melbourne is only opened for 2 weeks. Word is getting around and it will only get busier.

4 responses to “What is Mamak?

  1. Great post …. wish I could visit!

  2. Pingback: That Little Thai Place | FOODTRAIL

  3. Yes I’m always hungrey, great pictures

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