I can’t say I’ve been excited about anything new in Chinatown in, well, probably since the dawn of the new millennium. In fact, I still only visit for the good ole mainstays like Golden Century, the Chinese noodle shop, or yum cha at Marigold, Dragon Star and the other usual suspects. But now there’s something new that I’m excited about. A place called Mamak.
And the thing is, I’m not nearly half as ebullient as Eunice and her friend: two Malaysian gals who are worryingly excited about the food here. Yes, the best new restaurant in Chinatown isn’t even Chinese. It’s Indian food, cooked for Malaysians. And it’s barely been open for more than a week now.
Mamak started three years ago, when Aussie-Malay young exec Julian Lee visited an authentic Malaysian restaurant, Bismi, in Melbourne’s CBD, and wondered why there wasn’t an equally good Malay experience in Sydney. “A lot of Malaysian restaurants have a watered down flavour,” he tells me. In time, he and two friends, Alan Au and Clement Lee, decided to open up their own restaurant in Sydney. But when attempts to recruit a trained chef from Kuala Lumpur proved too difficult, the three decided to quit their executive jobs – Julian was an account manager for Pfizer, Alan a risk manager for Macquarie Bank and Clement a software engineer for Optus – and move to Kuala Lumpur to work in restaurants and learn to cook real-deal Malaysian food.
“We’re offering a menu that has gone largely unseen in Sydney. in Australia,” says Julian. “Our recipes are exactly the same as what you get in Malaysia. Most restaurants [in Sydney] offer Malaysian staples like laksa and chicken rice. And you can find rotis, but they’re not made fresh. There’s a fair amount of skill in making the rotis.”
And it’s the rotis that are the stars here at Mamak. They’re the first thing you see as you enter this slim eating space, with a glassed-in counter enclosing the roti maestro, who pounds down the dough, flips and stretches it into paper-thin flatbread, folds it crepe-like, and cooks it on a stainless electric griddle. The rotis range from savoury to sweet to stuffed.
I’m also joined by George Karabelas, the IT whiz who I worked with when we launched the yourRestaurants and yourBars websites and mobile guides a couple of years ago. George is one of the biggest foodies I know, and it’s he who first alerted me to Mamak. In fact, he had already gorged himself here the night before, and warns we against ordering the tea, which kept him up for much of the night before. But that only makes me more curious, so I get a mug of the ‘the tarik’, a blend of strong Malaysian tea, condensed milk and spices. I’m not sure if it was the caffeine or the hefty sugar hit that gripped George, but I’m loving it; it’s dessert in a teacup, and great for sucking up the heat from the hotter dishes.
We’ve settled into one of the small tables, backdropped by a full-bodied red wall that would make Fidel Castro proud. My pick of the rotis is the ever-faithful roti canai, served with two small curries for dipping. The texture is a slightly crisped and stretchy dough, and the lightness fools you about its level of richness. (Later, my bloated belly will tell me the truth.) We also get a sweet roti, rolled and standing tall like a pyramid, as well as a murtabak that’s filled with spicy minced lamb.
It isn’t all rotis here, however. The satay is another standout, and is made with smaller meat portions that most Aussies will be accustomed to (Sydney satays are “like a souvlaki,” Julian gripes), and the flavour is more delicate and sweeter. And unlike many other satay, these aren’t baked or fried, but are instead cooked over charcoal to gain a slightly smokey taste, and flavoured with lemongrass and a “secret” infused oil. Additionally, the peanut taste isn’t slathered on, but comes via a dip that is more red than the yellowy satays I usually experience locally. The depth of flavour immediate separates it from the standard satay sauce.
Mamak means “uncle” in Tamil, but it’s become better known in Malaysia for the Indian-Muslim eateries that serve rotis and other comfort fare via cheap-and-cheerful 24/7 outposts. These are often roadside food stalls, and packed at midnight and into the wee hours. Or as Julian explains, “It’s typically what you have after a night out, while watching the soccer. The customers are often students. It’s casual, not pretentious and affordable, so it pulls in the young crowds.” That’s equally the case in Sydney’s Mamak, who certainly appreciate rotis starting at $5.
We also try to order a nasi goreng and nasi lemak with sambal prawns, but the kitchen has run out of them, so we opt for the Maggi goreng, a variation on mee goreng that substitutes hokkien noodles with Maggi soup noodles. It’s a daggy food in concept, but a nicely spicy noodle dish in practice, with crunchy fish cake slices offering a nicely contrasting texture.
While the sweet ‘roti pisang’ catches my eye for dessert – namely because this pancake with sliced bananas remind me of the late-night street stalls in Bangkok – my Malaysian dining companions talk me into sharing some cendol. It’s a mound of brown and pink shaved ice, dotted with soft dabs of pandan-leaf ‘noodle’ and sweetened with gula-melaka (palm sugar) syrup and enriched with coconut milk. It’s decadent, to say the least. In a good way.
We stagger out of Mamak more than sated, and I swear I’m going to have a simple salad for dinner the next night. Luckily, the meal turns out to be light on one part of me: my wallet. And that kindness at the cash register will likely lead me to revisit Mamak time and again, whose late-night hours now give a good alternative to BBQ King and Golden Century. And I don’t know about how other folks will be affected by that tea, but my full belly soon lures me into a food coma, so when I hit that pillow, I’m out for the count.
Mamak, 15 Goulburn St, Haymarket, Sydney, (02) 9211 1668, http://www.mamak.com.au