One of the things that I love most about being in Malaysia is the 24 hour availability of good food. Where else in the world can you come out of a club or a party at 3 o’clock in the morning and still have an abundance of food choices?
One of the classic Malaysian food escapes are the mamak stalls. Local Muslim-Indian food that has become not just a food cuisine but a way of life for Malaysians. Long before the Starbucks and Coffee Bean franchises started the trend of sipping and chillin’ with your coffee, Malaysian always had a cheaper lifestyle of hanging out with your friends for some “teh tarik”.
You can sit for hours and go through at least 5 drinks per person with other choices of great Malaysian food. Roti Canai, Nasi Lemak, Mee Goreng, Nasi Kandar… the list goes on.
Growing up with such a lifestyle and culture, mamak food has continued to satisfy my cravings since I was a kid. Even until today, as an adult – mamak has become a lifestyle for me. Even with the occassional Starbucks and high end coffee joints, there’s nothing more local and grounded like a nice mamak sessions with friends to chat, gossip and just simply (as the Malaysians say) “talk cock”.
I am thankful to have a mamak stall just within walking distance from my home. The Lotus chain of mamak stalls have truly made an empire locally for the mamak industry. Together with the Pelita’s, they’re no longer just a stall, but a full bungalow land building of mamak restaurant. The foreigners refer to them as food courts.
With the mamak lifestyle in Malaysia, you also need to familiarise yourself with the food menu and mamak talk. There are simply too much to mention here but here lists some of my favourite:-
- “Kau-kau” means extra. Eg, you order “Milo Ice kau-kau”, meaning extra Milo in your Iced Milo.
- “Mata Kerbau” means sunny side eggs, which you usually add on top of your fried noodles. The literal translation is actually bull’s eye.
- “Roti” means bread. There are many variations to the “roti” dishes you can have here, usually served like naan with curry, dhal or any other gravy. Eg, roti canai (thinner version of naan), roti tissue, roti bom, roti John… You really have to try everything to love it.
- “Soup Kambing” is actually oxtail soup, which is called “Sup Buntut” in Indonesia. “Kambing” is lamb in Malaysia, but “Buntut” actually means ass in Malaysia. So calling it “Sup Buntut” in a Malaysian mamak might actually start some giggles. So beware.
- “Teh Tarik” literally means “Pull tea”. It’s actually tea with milk served hot on a small glass after being poured from one can to another to create the froth, mix the tea + milk together and cooling the drink a little. It’s quite a show to watch them make it. There are even “Teh Tarik” competitions here.
- “Tapau” or “Bungkus” means take away. When you order food or drinks to go, you just place your order and tell them to “tapau” or “bungkus” indicating that you’re not dining in.
- “Kira” means count. It’s usually what you say when you order the bill. You call the waiter over to count your bill amount. Get it?
There are so much good mamak food that thinking about it just makes my mouth drool. Other than the roti variety, you can get fried noodles (kuay teow flat rice noodles, bee hoon thin rice noodles, mee yellow noodles), fried rice in all styles (Kampung, Cina, USA, Padprik, etc), Tandoori chicken and naan, satay (meat kebab Malaysian style) and much more.
Also, only in South East Asian countries like Malaysia where Maggi Mee (instant noodles / pot noodles) can become a national dish. Malaysians eat Maggi Mee at any time of the day for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea snack, dinner or supper. There are also several varieties of it – Maggi Goreng (fried), Maggi soup (broth based), Indomie (Indonesian branded noodles) with “Mata Kerbau” (sunny side eggs) with a literal translation of Bull’s Eye.
One thing that I have to mention though that although not environmentally friendly, when you order food to go, it’s usually packed in styrofoam boxes. They’re non-biodegradable. Technically, since I order so much take out food from the mamak, I should bring my own container. 🙁
Due to the hot Malaysian weather, one of my classic mamak drinks are “Teh Ais” (Ice Tea). Mind you, our iced teas are with condensed milk. If you’re thinking of the English Iced Tea, you should be ordering “Teh O Ais”. “O” is without the milk.
Also, when you take away drinks, instead of being packed in a paper cup (which most places do), the mamak drinks are put in a small clear plastic bag. This seemed odd to some of my foreign friends. You basically tie a string on one end of the plastic bag and insert a straw. Again, plastic not being the most environmentally friendly material – it’s just a signature mamak thing!
On the days where I can’t be bothered to cook, am starving like mad and just want some good, cheap, satisfying local food, I go for the Maggi Goreng “Pedas kau-kau” (extra spicy) with my thirst quenching “Teh Ais” in a plastic bag.
I go to Lotus so much (I don’t cook and I’m lazy all the time), I can almost say that I grew up on mamak food. The waiters, supervisors and owners at Lotus knows me. They’re 24 hours so I got to know almost the entire crew and staff of all shifts from wee hours in the morning, lunch and even dinner staff. I strike up a good conversation with those guys and they almost always know what I’m ordering. I guess this is the kind of friendliness and comfort that an Irishman would associate with their local pub.
Which makes me wonder how I’ll be able to survive in a foreign country (like Europe or something) where I can’t get my regular dose of mamak food. Missing the food is one thing, but to miss the lifestyle and culture altogether? This is probably why some of my friends who’ve moved abroad are so homesick!
…and don’t get me started on the other equally yummy local food and lifestyle like Ramly burger!