Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Mamak (or Missing Malaysia)

We've just come back from a short and spontaneous trip to Kuala Lumpur—who could say no to a return fare of NZ$730 per person, when cheap, delicious and exotic meals awaited at the other end?

Street food such as satay was definitely on the menu, and we were particularly happy to find whole durian stalls on Jalan Alor, where the fresh creamy fruit with its spiky exterior was cut up in front of you for immediate consumption.  Other quests we went on were not so successful, and after many hours wandering the streets of Little India, we finally had to consult the internet to find out where to go for banana leaf rice.

Delicious food could also be found in the food courts of the malls in KL (a strange idea for someone used to NZ shopping malls), and it took a great amount of will power not to overeat on a daily basis.  Apart from the range of dishes available from the Malay, Indian and Chinese Malaysian kitchens, we took delight in the Western fast food chains that existed, both because of the retailers that do not exist in NZ (Papa John's Pizza and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, for instance), and because of the novel menu items offered by the more familiar franchises (chicken rice or Portuguese egg tarts from KFC, anyone?)

We've noticed that Malaysians like their hot chillies, and also have their drinks very sweet (they even add sugar syrup to fruit juices!), but probably more than anything else, what really defines Malaysian food culture are the mamak stalls and kopitiams.  In the former, you can purchase roti canai (soft and flaky flatbread), served with dhal for RM1.00 (about 50c in NZ), and more interesting varieties such as roti telur (with egg filling) or roti pisang (with banana filling) for RM2.00 (NZ$1); in the latter, you can have a breakfast of kaya toast (toast with coconut jam and often butter sandwiched in the middle), soft-boiled eggs (cracked into a dish and eaten with white pepper and soy sauce) and teh/kopi (local tea/coffee, sweetened with condensed milk—append "O" as in "teh-O" to have it without milk and append "C" to have it without sugar), for maybe RM8.00 in a set or combo.  Here's a video showing the amazing skill involved in making roti canai, though many places have the plain version made ahead of time:

On the topic of roti, we really learnt the generic meaning of the word when we went to order roti kaya, thinking that it would be a roti canai with filling, as is the case with roti bawang, roti pisang, etc.  We were disappointed to receive kaya toast made of white sandwich bread, rather than the Malaysian Indian bread we were hoping for.  Only then did we remember the roti john, which is made with something like hamburger buns, and the roti tissue, a paper-thin crispy sweet pancake shaped into a cone.

After all this fevered eating, we are back home, ready or not.  Auckland has some good Malaysian restaurants: you can never get a seat at KK, and everyone raves about the Fish Noodle Soup at Sri Mahkota.  Unfortunately, the only place I knew here that served kaya toast was in the IMAX food court, and that closed about nine months ago.

Kaya + Toast Coffee Hub used to be a great place for absorbing Malaysian/Singaporean culture
It was with great excitement that I heard from a friend about a new place in town called Mamak, which opened in the Chancery, towards the beginning of the year. As you would expect from a place with such a name, they have many types of roti, including the sweet varieties I had learnt to love in Malaysia.  The prices here are slightly higher than in a food court such as Food Alley, but for that you get to eat al fresco in the cobbled courtyard of an upmarket complex, the food is beautifully presented, and the owner comes rushing out to put up an extra umbrella for you should it get too sunny or rainy.

I guess you would call the food modern Malaysian, since there are raw salads served with some of the side dishes (labelled "tapas"), a lot of attention has been paid to the visual impact of the plates, and the menu caters well to vegetarians.  For this reason, I am going to forgive them for the fact that the roti canai is not quite the texture I have come to expect, almost too crispy and oily, rather than soft with a flaky crust (I thought this may have been intentional, but they have taken the hard crispiness out of the roti now).  I also found the dhal accompanying the roti somewhat bland, but other dishes, like the nasi lemak or mee goreng, had great flavours, and items like pandan soy bites I just have not seen for sale anywhere else.

[Added 14 January 2012: I have since since seen "deep fried chickun in pandan leaf" for sale at Loving Hut, formerly the Golden Age Vegan Restaurant (61 Victoria Street West, diagonally opposite the Sky Tower).]

Nasi Lemak with Beef Rendang
Mee Goreng
Roti Tissue, thin and crunchy with a sugar lining, served with condensed milk, curry and cabbage
In any case, Mamak is good enough for my workmates, including the Malaysian/Singaporean ones, to eat at on a weekly basis.  From a quiet start, this eatery has attracted more and more of the lunchtime crowd, to the point where people were being turned away because there weren't enough tables.  They no longer take lunch bookings, but I guess we kind of have a standing appointment with the owner, whom we secretly refer to as "Uncle Jeffrey".  Give this place a try, if you can find a seat.

Panda Recommends

Mains: Mee Goreng ($13.50), Nasi Lemak ($12.50)
Sides/Dessert: simply for its novelty value, Roti Tissue ($7.50)

Vegie Pandas
Vegetarian items are clearly marked on the menu, but there are some non-marked items that you could also have, for instance the sweet roti varieties and the plain murtabak.  The fish/chicken gravy accompanying other roti options could also be replaced by an extra portion of dhal (not particularly exciting), or sometimes vegetarian curry.

[Added 13 May 2013: The menu below is old. Apparently you can only get roti tissue in the weekends these days.]
Menu - Page 1
Menu - Page 2

Restaurant Details

Chancery Square, 50 Kitchener St, Auckland Central
(09) 948 6479

Opening hours:
Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Sundays 11:30am - 10pm

Mamak has lovely courtyard seating in the Chancery

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