Sydney's culinary institution of Malaysian roti by popularity has finally migrated south of the border and opened up in Melbourne to the delight of Malaysians, Singaporeans and Aussie converts.
Mamak is legendary for its customer queues both day and night especially at the original eatery on Goulburn Street in Haymarket, Sydney where waiting times average 30 minutes. The same queues seem to be manifesting here in Melbourne where diners feel the food is worth the wait and the live cooking show entertains like a riveting episode of MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules.
This eatery is exceptional at drawing the crowd with its show kitchen behind large glass windows, especially designed for spectators to watch performances of kneading, stretching, tossing, flipping, shaping and folding paper-thin roti dough onto a hot grill, much like the scene at an original Malaysian mamak stall.
True to the denotation of "mamak", Mamak's food is reflective of Indian-Muslim cuisine in Malaysia with roti canai and rojak (salad), and standard mamak stall products like nasi lemak (rice cooked with coconut cream), mee goreng (fried noodles) and satay.
This popular eatery's humble beginnings was a market stall selling roti canai and teh tarik (milk tea) in Sydney's Chinatown. The first and original restaurant opened in 2007 and the second in Chatswood followed in 2010.
The decor in Mamak Melbourne is a near-mirror image of their eateries in Sydney and Chatswood, which adopts a contemporary upmarket spin on the Malaysian coffeeshop. Photos of old Malaysian hawker scenes adorn plain walls and seating is tightly spaced nondescript wooden tables and stools.
As we watched plate after plate of Mamak's best sellers work their way to hungry diners who cleaned them up, it was time to order and do the taste test. In addition to the roti, the menu featured a tight selection of familiar Malay mains, rice and noodles. Looking at the most-ordered dishes around us, the decision was roti canai (AUD5.50), a dozen satay (AUD16), mee goreng (AUD11.50) and cendol (AUD6). Service was fast, helpful and polite.
Mamak serves its roti in 11 ways but we were really only interested in the original crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside version. What was usually served flat in Malaysia arrived crunched up in a ball accompanied by lentil dhal, a cross between vegetable and meat curry and a dollop of house-made sambal, all on a classic Indian stainless steel compartmental tray.
It's light crispy and soft-chewy consistency was even better than many I'd consumed at mamak stalls in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and hawker centres in Singapore (SG). It was delicious on its own and suddenly I found the single serving to be too meagre. I'm used to the Kuala Lumpur and Singapore roti canai with only vegetable or mutton curry so the dhal and sambal didn't do much for me.
The satay took a bit more time on the grill but they were worth the wait. What arrived looked similar to the PapaRich's satays with the sides of raw red onion and roughly chopped cucumber but there were important differences.
The first was the aroma and flavour. The satays brought with them the sweet smoky scent and taste of marinated meat on charcoal. The second is the "Kuah" or peanut dipping sauce. It was a thick dark red mix of chunky peanuts and spicy chilli and not the usual watery brown version served in other places. This dish would be an absolute 10/10 if not for the missing traditional satay accompaniment, the "Ketupat" or rice cake cooked in a woven coconut leaf casing.
The mee goreng was another taste winner with the skillful hot wok searing of yellow egg noodle, fish cake slices, fresh prawns, , scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and "Choy Sim" or a type of green leafy Chinese vegetable with chilli, tomato, oyster and dark sweet soy sauce.
It had the right noodle consistency and moistness without ingredients being overcooked and dry. It was more of a Chinese or Malay style mee goreng rather than the traditional semi-charred reddish Indian-Muslim mee goreng with fried bean curd, eggs, minced mutton and cabbage that you get in hawker centres.
Cendol was served in a bowl, desert style whereas in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, it is often presented in a glass as a drink. All the key ingredients and flavours were present including the pandan leaves scented green rice flour noodles, gula melaka (Palm sugar) syrup, coconut milk and shaved ice. For AUD6, I was expecting a greater variety of ingredients such as red bean and grass jelly.
Mamak Melbourne is an excellent venue for that Malaysian Indian-Muslim fix of roti and satay. It's just that kind of busy, high decibel eatery where good food meets crowd and queues. Despite the long line, the restaurant makes an effort to move diners along with its quick service and fast meals. With demand for Mamak's Malaysian Indian-Muslim food on the rise, we might find hampers and picnic baskets in Melbourne filled with satays and roti canai this Christmas.