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.
Similarly, a hot teh tarik or Malaysian style pulled-tea is frothy, warming with that distinctive flavour of Boh Tea from the hills of Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
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
We adore Mamak! Love the roti, and the curry fish, and especially the kangkung!! And the sweet roti bom at the end is always a favourite. We have much better luck getting a table at Chatswood than we do in the city.
I think this is definitely our fave M’sian resto in town, although I do like Sambal in North Ryde and I quite like Albee’s in Campsie as well (as it’s close).
The roti there is fab! The lines are always there it seems no matter what day you go or what time! 😛
I agree, Mamak was one of the first Malaysian places and is still the best. Great read, too!
Dear Chopinand, when we next visit Sydney, we would like to break roti with you at this eatery!
For sure. When is your next visit?
I would love to watch them make roti. I’m definitely putting this in my diary for our next trip to Sydney.
I looked at all your gorgeous food and then kept going back to the roti.
I absolutely love your photography.
Stop, stop! You’re making me miss Malaysian food too much… okay, don’t stop, I love reading about it and looking at your photos even if I can’t eat them. Need to go to Mamak next time I’m in Sydney! I think my cousin might even know some of the people who run the place…
Im still yet to go to Mamak. The line is always huge and Im too hungry to wait haha
Must try Mamak next time. We ran out of time and belly room on the last trip… not to mention the queue was half way down the road!
That SURELY LOOKS delicious and authentic! I can see from the gloss on the satay! And they even serve the roti canai “Thali-style”….interesting!
well done for the young Malaysians carving the Mamak niche in Sydney! The food sure looks very authentic. With AUD getting stronger against RM, AUD5.50 for a plain Roti Canai can be quite a pinch for Malaysian tourists!
With the current exchange rate, any food in Sydney would be a pinch for Malaysian tourists who tend convert prices when they should really be comparing dollar for dollar, difficult as it may be. Even if the plain roti was AUD1, some would still complain coz it costs them RM3+ now.
Generally, I find Malaysians to be some of the fussiest eaters, holding on to a subjective notion of “authenticity” when the quality of hawker street food in Malaysia now is a shadow of what it used to be 20 years ago.
Now I just have to try that roti bread! How delicious does it look. In fact all the food looks amazing. I must get to the new restaurant in Chatswood. Great review! xx
If I live there, and within one hour drive range, I’m going to have lunch/dinner on the same day or next day. I seriously want to go here. Roti canai is my favorite and I ALWAYS place minimum 2 orders because I can easily finish one order myself. If there is any cooking lesson that I can learn how to make it I totally would. I like that much! I’m not too familiar with the name of the dishes but I want to try everything… I need someone like you to go with me! 😉 Great review and totally made me hungry.
You’re absolutely right about the roti canai.
The main this is that it needs to be made fresh so that it is absolutely crisp and flaky, ready to be dipped into your favourite curries! I’m sure you can find a good one in San Francisco though.
The food and flavors of these dishes appeal so much to me. Even their names are a delight! I’m a fool for Ghee (blame it on my Midwest dairy farm background — butter has always been a big part of my life, but Ghee is like “ultimate melted butter!”) and I can’t imagine how good it must be “stretched” into a roti. That said, I’ve always wanted to make nasi lamak. I love rice.
I think nasi lemak is right in the heart of Malaysian food and a simple, home-made nasi lemak is divine.
Yummo! We also enjoyed Mamak on two visits to Sydney in the past few years. My favourite Malaysian dishes are the ones from my childhood days in Malaysia, when a morning visit to the markets on the weekend would mean a morning tea of chee cheong fun, chai tau kueh, char kuey teow and nasi lemak – just to name a few. And nothing beats nonya kueh bought from the streetside vendors! Good Malaysian restaurants are sadly lacking in Hong Kong, so we plan to load up on good M’sian tucker the next time we’re in Oz (or Malaysia!).
Dear Expat Gourmand,
When in Hong Kong, I think it’s best to stick to mainstream chinese food and forget about Malaysian, difficult as it may be for you since you are living there.
Man, I really have to get over to Mamak, the maggi goreng and roti looks worth the trip!
I always enjoy your culinary journeys! I don’t eat out a lot, so this is a little bit as if I’d been there as well. But I’ve never eaten a Malaysian dish so far. Is there one you would recommend?
Good Malaysian food is very tasty because it is usually a little spicy with depths of flavour.
I would recommend the ones above and the quintessential dish of Malaysia – nasi lemak, which is coconut fragrant rice with sambal, crispy anchovies and usually comes with a choice of different types of curries.
I could make an entire meal out of roti. I kid you not. LOL And this one looks particularly irresistible.
I was expecting a ‘mamak’ to flip the roti as we usually see in Malaysian Hawker scene instead I did the flipping when I saw the prices..”pengsan” (faint) ;P
By “pengsan”, I presume you are referring to the prices in Mamak being expensive compared to what it is in Malaysia after converting to ringgit. Please see my comment to Shannon above.
I am a little surprised that you live in Perth with your family but still think restaurants prices in Australia should be comparable to a third world hawker stall in Malaysia after currency conversion just because the restaurant is serving Malaysian hawker style food. Coming from a rich mining state like WA, you should well know that Australia is one of the richest developed countries in the world and it is irrelevant to compare food prices with Malaysia where quality and operating cost factors are so different.
I do apologise if my comment above has somehow deemed offensive.
No need for apologies because I didn’t take offence to your previous comments at all.
I am merely trying to understand why some people would deem these prices expensive when an equivalent quality doner kebab, gourmet sandwich, mixed plate of sushi, chicken burger or a bowl of HK roast duck noodles are within comparable price points.
It all looks so lovely, but those satays are calling my name!
Has it really been eight years? Wow. Time flies when you’re having fun… and tasty food!
We have introduced many of our friends to Mamak over the years and they all love it – especially the kari kambing. I myself always tend to go for the nasi lemak with kari ayam. Although, all the dishes you have shown above tend to make it to our table, too, with a profusion of roti (it always looks like a classic case of over-ordering, but we always manage to polish everything off).
I think a good goat curry is absolutely divine. Personally, the taste and flavours of curries can be quite subjective because there are so many variations.
I prefer to cook my own southern Indian style curries because I love the spiciness and never quite order curries in restaurants unless they are different. Then again, the different ones tend to be meek, subtle and never quite have the fiery attitude of what a curry should be.
ohhh boy i love mamak’s rotis! i always go during lunch to avoid the insane queues
I have to agree, even in Melbourne, we have had an explosion of Malaysian restaurants… however, none do roti like Mamak does.. *sadface* oh well.. it gives me something to look forward to when I get to Sydney… we have good char kway teow (miraculously, with lap cheong and pork fat!) Jealous?
Is a great staple to pop in to. You know you will get a great feed. Love Mamak