A famous saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” can be altered in this case to state “When in Malaysia, eat like the Malaysians do”. To truly understand the culture of a new country, its best to put yourself in their shoes. Immerse yourself in their traditions, dip your fingers into their cuisine and most importantly, associate with the locals in their comfort zone. Following these rules, the best place to gauge a part of Malaysian culture is to eat at their local mamak stalls. Why I say “a part”, is because three races live harmoniously side by side in Malaysia; Chinese, Indian and Malays, each with their own distinct cuisines and habits. Mamaks represent the cuisine and lifestyle of the Indians that migrated to Malaysia centuries ago.
Mamak stalls are akin to open air food courts that are found at every nook and cranny of Malaysia, serving hawker-style food. Their popularity soars far beyond any hospitality establishment as they are packed with people at all hours. You will never find a mamak stall empty, be it 5pm or 5am. Tamil Muslims that migrated from South India set up these outlets serving halal food, hence you can see the South Indian influence in the dishes served at these places. The concentration in mamaks is not on the ambiance or decor but strictly on food; delicious food at very cheap prices. Buzzing with chatter, mamaks are the place to be to discover the beauty of Malaysian cuisine. Their menu is vast with vegetarian as well as non vegetarian dishes, but here are my top five favorites.
Pronounced ch-nai, a visit to any mamak stall would be incomplete without this dish. The signature order in every mamak stall, Canai is literally translated into “flatbread”. It is a mix between an Indian paratha and roti. The flour dough, mixed with eggs, water and oil, is twirled until it turns into a thin sheet and them cooked on a hot griddle laced with oil. The end result is a crisp yet moist and fluffy flatbread. Served with lentils and any sort of meat curry, the best way to eat it is with your hands. Break a piece and dip into the curries and enjoy a piece of heaven. It is so light, you may end up eating more than you would have imagined. But then again, it is a sin not stop eating good food.
My absolute favorite dish at a mamak stall is a thosai. Known as dossa in South India, this dish is evidence of the influence of South Indian cooking on Malaysian Cuisine. Adopted directly from the flat-iron pans of Chennai, thosai is the South Indian version of crepes. The batter is made from crushed wheat flour and urad lentils, it is spread on a round pan in circular motions. Once it starts to brown, the thosai is flipped to cook the other side. A perfectly made thosai should be thin and crisp. Served with coconut chutney, lentils and fish curry, it is a match made in heaven. Scoop the coconut chutney with the thosai and dip it into the fish curry; couldnt ask for a better bite. Starting at RM1.40, it is a complete meal at barely any cost.
Nasi Briyani Ayam
Malaysian cuisine is very heavily centered around rice. Their most popular dishes are fried rice (nasi goreng) and nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk), both available at mamak stalls. For a spicy version, order the nasi biryani. However, this is not to be mistaken for Indian biryani, which includes a plethora of herbs and spices including saffron threads. Instead this is a milder version, cooked with vegetables, curry leaves and barely any spices. The chicken that is served with it is crispy and batter fried, with most of the spices mixed into the batter. The best time to eat this dish is either at lunch or dinner time when it is freshly made at the stall. It may be low on spices but it is surely full of flavor.
It derives its name from the Arabic word Muttabaq, which means folded. In essence, it is folded flatbread filled with eggs, onions, ground beef and spices. It tastes like a fat, fluffy omelet, but it is actually made in a wheat pastry. The layer of pastry that envelopes the egg is so thin, that you can only taste the egg and meat mixture. While the pastry is being cooked on the wok, the egg mixture is poured on top. The chef then needs to quickly fold the pastry so the egg mixture does not seep out. It requires a high degree of skill to make this dish, without breaking the outer pastry. At the end all the effort seems to be worth it. One always associates eggs with breakfast, but this dish can be eaten at any time of the day. Normally it is served with lentils and curry, but I prefer to eat it on its own. Its own flavors are so bold that it does not need an accompaniment. It is a winning combination; egg and flat bread cooked together.
All the food needs to be washed down with the famous Malaysian tea. Teh Tarik literally translates into “pulled tea”. Once the tea is brewed, a sweetened creamer is added and then it has to be tossed from one cup to another to enhance its flavors and create a froth. One sip and it works wonders to miraculously relieve you of any lethargy or tiredness. The taste, however, is an acquired one. It resembles the flavors of ripe dates but delicious nonetheless. Initially, it was too sweet for my taste, but tell them to reduce the sugar and it turns into the perfect cup of tea. Perfect way to start or even end your experience at a mamak stall.
This list is far from exhaustive. Mamaks serve Chinese inspired dishes too like Tom Yum Soup, Mee Goreng Ayam (Fried Noodles with Chicken), Rojak (tofu salad with a sweet peanut sauce), curried vegetables to name a few. Hungry after a night out, mamaks are the best place to go to fill your stomach. You cannot experience Malaysia in its entirety if you do not dine at a mamak stall. The buzzing atmosphere with chatter across the cooking stalls, the clinking of metal cutlery, coupled with flavorful food makes it a true representation of Malaysian culture.