There has been a proliferation of Malaysian restaurants opening up in and around Sydney in recent months. Many of these new restaurants are serving up classic Malaysian dishes such as nasi lemak, char kway teow, Ipoh hor fun, satay, laksa and Hainanese chicken rice. “Usual suspects” as I call these dishes because variations in taste and flavours can be as wide as a Malaysian teh-tarik hawker stretching his tea.
However, one restaurant seems to be the toast of Malaysian flavours where long queues, snappy service, fiery curries and smoky satays are hitting the spot for its legion of loyal fans.
Not exactly a new establishment because Mamak is now an eight-year old restaurant that has given food lovers in Sydney a real taste of “authentic” Indian-Muslim flavours from Malaysia. Its humble beginnings of a single shop lot on Goulburn street has expanded to two and a new outlet has since opened in Chatswood in Sydney’s north shore.
The Early Days of Flipping Roti
Mamak is the brainchild of Julian Lee and his group of university friends who decided to give Sydneysiders a taste of the classic Malaysian-style bread and began flipping these roti in the noodle night markets in town.
The process of making these deliciously flaky and crisp roti is a spectacle in itself.
Starting with a humble piece of flour dough and some ghee, the flipping process gradually spreads the dough wafer thin which is then folded and seared on an iron griddle until it is crisp.
Roti canai (as it is popularly known in Malaysia) is usually dipped into a variety of fish or chicken curry sauces, dahl or even eaten on its own.
The popularity of the roti canai has created a host of variants.
Roti telur (egg roti), roti bawang (roti with slivers of Spanish onions), murtabak (roti filled with spicy chicken or lamb, egg and onions) are truly some of the quintessential elements of Malaysian hawker-style food.
A host of desserts denominations have also emerged from the original roti where slices of fresh bananas (roti pisang) have found its way with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream or roti tisu that is thin like tissues are served in a cone shaped as big as a witch’s hat.
Finding the Successful Niche
The success of selling roti at the night markets lead this group of students to open a small restaurant on Goulburn street at the edge of Sydney’s chinatown.
The term “Mamak” refers to the inter-marriage of Indian and Muslim people in Malaysia. Their food is a blend of their respective cultures where herbs and spices such as turmeric, curry powder, chilli among so many others are central to its flavours.
I believe the success of Mamak is founded upon their clever food niche. Ever so popular as they may be, Mamak does not offer classic Malaysian food such as char kway teow, Hainanese chicken rice, hokkien mee, laksa, har mee or prawn noodles.
Mamak has stuck to their guns of offering not just any Malaysian food but more specifically, Indian-Muslim fare with spicy curries and pungent sambal, satays with the unmistakable charcoal aroma and mee goreng from a fiery hot wok. Central to this offering is the spectacle of flipping Malaysian roti and its array of roti denominations.
The Review – Mamak, 15 Goulburn street, Haymarket, Sydney
Over the last few years, I have been to Mamak on many occasions and have tried almost all of the items on their menu.
The menu itself is not extensive and nor should it be since it is offering a Malaysian niche cuisine. Roti in all of its most popular variations, satays, curries and sambal dishes, rice and noodles favourites make up a short and succinct list.
How good is it when a clever niche allows a restaurant to offer Milo ais (Ice Milo) to its customers?
Some of the really good hawker stalls in the streets of Kuala Lumpur will proudly display large tins of Milo, Ovaltine or Horlicks in their stalls.
Fresh milk in Malaysia from the days of British colonial rule is not only expensive but considered a luxury item to many Malaysian households. As a result, many Malaysian children grew up on cheaper alternatives such as powdered milk, Milo, Ovaltine and Horlicks.
Till this day, where fresh milk is now readily available and cheaper than a Starbuck’s coffee, Milo is an iconic beverage for many Malaysians due to its perceived health and nutritional benefits. Whether it does any good to my health is irrelevant because a sip of this icy cold Milo immediately brings me back to my childhood in Kuala Lumpur.
Each time I am at Mamak, there is a long queue of people outside the restaurant waiting to be seated. Once inside, the menus are quickly presented and orders are taken. Service is efficient and snappy because they know that customer turnover is vital to their business especially when there is seemingly a perpetual queue.
Half dozen sticks of chicken satay arrive with cucumber and Spanish onions as its classic accompaniment. The satays are succulent with hints of lemongrass, aniseed and that smoky charcoal aroma.
I like the way the onions and cucumber are presented – chunky and thick as it should be (as opposed to thin slices) so that it can be skewered and dipped into a delectable peanut sauce and its thick crunchy texture felt to full effect.
What turns a good satay into a great satay is the colour, flavour and texture of the spicy peanut sauce. The great satay sauces from Kajang in Malaysia are dark red in colour from its chilli bo (dried chilli), with thick and visible crunchy bits of roasted peanuts, piquant, spicy and comes in a relatively large bowl.
Many Malaysian restaurants serving satay fall short when this sauce arrives watery in a dull brownish colour.
For me, Mamak’s satay ticks all of the boxes and I would rate it as one of the best if not the best in Sydney.
There is absolutely no way that you not order roti when at Mamak.
Not only have you watched roti being prepared while standing in queue for the last 30 minutes, it is also unmistakably glaring at you right at the top of the menu. Roti is the heart of Mamak’s business. It is the single most popular dish and it is not difficult to see why.
A roti canai (plain roti or roti prata as it is known in Singapore) arrives fluffled up like a little paper ball. It is flaky, crisp and yelling out for me to tear it apart and dip it into the accompanying dahl and curry sauce. I always wonder about the dollop of sambal because it is not usually served in Malaysia. Nevertheless, it works well with the roti.
There is just something comforting about eating off a stainless steel compartmental plate. It truly reminds me of Indian-Muslim banana leaf curry houses in Malaysia and Singapore where dahl, condiment, vegetables and curries are placed in individual compartments.
Roti telur is similar to roti canai except it contains beaten egg and is more omelette-like. The flaky texture of the roti is almost like a mop when it hits the curry sauce, soaking up all its spicy goodness.
Like the satay, I would rate Mamak’s Malaysian style roti along with all its variations like roti telur, murtabak, roti pisang and roti tisu to be the best that Sydney can offer.
I have tried both the mee goreng and Maggi goreng at Mamak and I would definitely recommend the Maggi goreng. The only difference being the type of noodles used, Maggi goreng seems to have more flavour and I like the curly and delicate texture of the Maggi style noodles.
With a squeeze of lime juice, the noodles are slightly spicy with a hint of sweetness from tomato sauce but crunchy fresh bean sprouts, deep-fried tofu puffs, slices of fish cakes and prawns complete the taste sensation. Again, the interpretation of this dish at Mamak lingers in my mind among its satay and roti.
A plate of sambal udang (sambal prawns) arrives fiery red although the spice level is gentler than it looks. About eight or nine crunchy king prawns tossed in a hot wok with a sambal sauce lend more spicy flavours to our meal.
Kangkung belacan or water spinach stir-fried with belachan is smoky with the pungent aroma of shrimp paste. It is difficult to fault a dish like this when done well because it has the heady aroma and taste of salt complexity in the vegetables from the paste.
I love chicken curry and Mamak does a kari ayam that comes with chicken on the bone and chunky pieces of potato.
Generally, this is the way Malaysians prefer their curries because the bone gives more flavour and it always seems like such a tasty challenge to manoeuvre around the bones to get all the chicken meat off, whether with your fork and spoon or to simply dig in with your fingers and bare teeth.
So far I have had delicious experiences at Mamak although they did forget our chicken satays on one occasion despite them letting us know it would take a while and came back to inform us the kitchen is already closed. Apart from this glitch and the long queues, Mamak appears to be doing all the right things.
A Malaysian restaurant serving Indian-Muslim hawker style food in Sydney that is run by a group of young Malaysian chinese is testament that with the right focus Malaysian hawker style food can taste even better than some of the ones in the streets of Malaysia.
The menu is short and precise as it should be for niche concept. What sets this restaurant apart is offering a selection of mamak-style Malaysian hawker cuisine that is executed extremely well.
With food of this quality at around $20 per head, I know I will be back again, many times over.
So dear readers, do you have a favourite Malaysian dish and which is your favourite Malaysian restaurant in your city?
15 Goulburn street,
Haymarket, Sydney 2000
Tel: +61 2 9211 1558 (No reservations)
Lunch: 11.30 – 2.30, Dinner 5.30 – 10.00, Supper (Friday and Saturday) till 2.00am
Shop P9, 1 – 5 Railway street
Tel: +61 2 9411 4411 (No reservations)
Lunch: 11.30 – 2.30, Dinner 5.30 – 9.30, (Friday and Saturday) till 10.30am