I hate it when bloggers talk about how they haven’t posted for a while. It’s not like you’re hanging on every word I say, anxiously waiting for the next update. You’ve probably got heaps of blogs in some RSS feed, so if someone isn’t posting, them you’re just reading other people’s stuff. Readers don’t notice if anyone’s been quiet – only the blogger notices (and if they’re lucky, maybe their sponsors).
So while I’m certain you’ve just been overloaded with Google +, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, BranchOut, email, RSS feeds, blogs, MMS, SMS and those strange people who actually ring you over the phone, I’m going to make a weak statement. I’ve been busy, and the blog hasn’t gotten the usual love.
Enter the Malaysian Kitchen Blogger Summit, an initiative to help spread awareness and know-how about Malaysian food and cooking in Australia. I was recently asked to be part of 13 (my lucky number) of the top food bloggers in the country, and try a different Malaysian restaurant every week and write about it. On their dime. No questions asked. I can write whatever I want: praise, indifference or aggravation.
Easy choice. I love my Malaysian food anyway, and there’s nothing like a good challenge to get a blogger back into the swing of posting regularly. (Of course, if you’d count MasterChef Magazine, the SMH Good Café Guide, OutThere and TheAgendaDaily.com, among others, I’m basically ‘posting’ constantly – just for other media outlets).
Yesterday way my personal kickoff, so I started with a no-brainer: Mamak in Chinatown. I first came here in 2007, just days after the place opened, heeding a hot tip by a Malaysian-born friend of mine. It’s long been a favourite (as it is with so many others), even if I haven’t been back in a while.
Mind you, back in the early days, Mamak’s food did seem to have a bit more personal attention and spark; the flavours were a little more complex before the restaurant doubled in size, followed by the expansions to Chatswood and Glebe. But you could say that about a lot of great restaurants. I still relish my meal sitting in front of Shannon Bennett’s pass at the original, intimate Vue de Monde in Carlton. Shannon remains a great chef, but that upstart space and experience was special – like seeing your favourite band at a pub before they broke the big time – and it will never happen again.
So my flatmate, Candice, and I hoof it from our geographically desirable Surry Hills loft, and meander down Goulburn Street. And, amazingly, the lines at Mamak still haven’t abated after all these years. It flows back past the restaurant front and that of the adjoining Taiwanese dessert place. Still, I’m a native New Yorker. I’m happy to wait in line if I know I can get in (at Manhattan hotspots, waits can be measured in days or months). And I know the line wil move fast.
In the meantime, we watch the roti makers roll out their dough behind the glass frontage, flipping and smacking it into paper-thin layers. Even after all these years, it’s still a treat to watch the edible theatre and nonchalant prep work.
Candice and I chat, text and Tweet for 25 minutes, then finally get the call: “Michael, table for two”. As we enter, the place is pumping – as it should when there’s such a long queue. The crowd is more Asian than not. We spy one young male entertaining what looks like two female backpackers, and we gossip like schoolkids.
Regardless of the crowds, our waitress rocks up quickly, all service-with-a-smile. It’s a big grin, seemingly genuine. Menus come quickly, as do drinks, and glasses of water.
The usual menu negotiations ensue. I’m partial to the fluffy, angelic roti canai, but Candice prefers the flatter and more buttery roti planta. Candice wins. In any case, it still arrives on its tray with the usual, lovely, dual dipping curries, one spicer than the other, plus a dollop of spicy sambal. Let’s face it – fresh roti is fantastic in any form: stretchy, steamy and flaky.
I’m a bit under the weather, so I’m hankering for some comfort food. I order two pieces of the ayam goreng, or Malaysian fried chicken. Two thighs arrive. They’re moist and hearty, but the skin isn’t all that crispy and the seasoning errs on the bland side. It’s my most anticipated, but ultimately least favoured dish of the night.
I want to vary my old routine, so I order our agreed plate of nasi lemak with an untried side of sambal calamari. My ever-chirpy Malay waitress crinkles her nose. She says that the sambal prawns are much better. I let her talk me out of it. Good thing – the prawns are lovely and on the upwardly side of spicy hot, which is a plus in my book. I eat the prawns first, then my half of boiled egg and cucumber, then use the remaining sauce to mix with the mound of coconut rice, roast peanuts, restrained additions of the crisp-fried baby anchovies for salt. Ahhh, nasi lemak – I love a sure thing.
The rice-sauce mixture is good enough to get my cheeks misty, but the heat-threshold doesn’t rise higher after I’m saved by my spice-slaying mug of teh tarik – that classic Malaysian sweet tea mad of condensed milk and ‘pulled’ by pouring from a highly held pot (or kettle) into a low-dangled cup. Earlier, I’m tempted to try the ginger-laced version or the Milo tarik, the Malaysian ‘hot chocolate’ that pairs that classic ‘energy’ drink with condensed milk, but at the last moment, I change my mind. I’m not inspired enough to deviate. The tea is tasty as usual, but erring further on the sickly side of sweet than I’d like. In fact, I’m not sure what’s sweeter: my tea or Candice’s cup of Coke.
Next is the kari kambing, the spicy lamb curry stew – although ‘next’ is misleading, since all of the dishes are crammed onto our tiny two-seat table like an intimate buffet. Which I don’t mind at all, even if it makes for some creative table shuffling at times. The kari kambing is Malaysia’s counterpart to Indonesia’s beef rendang and Thailand’s beef massamam curry, and it falls apart in similar, ever-pleasing fashion.
We’re playing it safe with the menu tonight – probably because both of us are fighting off winter colds – so for dessert we keep the safety thread consistent and go for the sweet roti pisang. It comes fused with thinly sliced bananas and two scoops of vanilla ice-cream, which are relatively bland but let the caramelised bananas shine. Anything with bananas feels like backpacker food to me, conjuring memories of drunken late nights in Bangkok gorging on banana pancakes near Khao San Road. I joke with the waitress that, considering the astronomical price of bananas right now, this has to be the best-value dish on the menu. She giggles, and agrees, then struts off in her Mamak-uniform Croc clogs to the next table.
We’re stuffed, and happy. Mamak seems to have settled into its size, and the food is more consistent than my last couple of visits. We stagger out the door, and I bid the new round-up of queue bystanders a mental good-luck. We’re off to home, and if my nightcap of Panadol Cold & Flu doesn’t fully put this cold to rest, I’m hoping some of that hot sambal sauce has killed off a good lot of those germ invaders.
Gosstronomy dined at Mamak courtesy of Malaysia Kitchen Australia.