Understanding food culture : Mamak.


One of the best things about trying to write about food is learning about food. The more we travel and the more I try to gauge and understand a culture by it’s dinnertime options the more I learn that there is often another culture; a bigger , historical culture that the food culture is born out of. Malaysia is especially pertinent in this respect, with such diversity and an integration of many nationalities and races in recent history.     


We’ve got a confession to make. As temporary Australians and keen eaters we (I, mostly) became pretty obsessed with the popular Sydney resto Mamak. It became a bit of a ritual to go there to gorge on food, and escape from Sydney into a small, pretend Asia. To queue for ages and eat our dinners elbow to elbow with other tables and be ushered out past the register whilst we’re still chewing the last mouthful. To be served roti and nasi lemak with belecan shrimp paste spiked sambal and curry sauce capable of producing sweaty faces.

All in all, it basically made me want to visit Malaysia immediately.

Fast forward a few months…

So what does Mamak mean?

The literal translation means uncle in Tamil language. I’ve read it’s a term used in the past for shopkeepers and a respectful term for elders.

Historically, Mamak food in Malaysia has come from the Tamil Indian population who migrated to Malaysia centuries ago from South India bringing with them heaps of flavours and culinary skills which have throughout the years percolated down through generations to become an important part of Malaysian food culture. It’s Indian food, but probably not as you know it.

Culturally they serve as a kind meeting place or a club for people to drink kopi or eat and chat. Similar I suppose to pub culture in the UK, but without the alcohol. The restaurants are very informal, often plastic tables on the side of the street and/ or functional benches in the restaurant. Mamak places will never win any design awards, but they are friendly and welcoming, even to confused looking foreigners. There’s never any rush to chuck you out, either.

Things to know about mamak joints

Traditionally they are a 24/7 restaurant and a go to place for breakfast, lunches and dinner as well as a kopi or teh pitstop. Some of the places I have visited close later in the evenings.

They are predominantly canteen style, you go up to the counter and see what they have and pick and choose your dinner. In the bigger cities, they will have menus in English (although, often lacking description) and will offer table service to tourists, but it’s better if you head up to the counter as you can pick the piece of chicken or fish you want and be more specific about how much of everything you want. Drinks and roti are made fresh, to order.

Mamak restaurants are run by Muslims. That means no pork, ever.

The menu may not show prices, but there is usually a board behind the counter that does – a Mamak meal is one of the cheapest and tastiest ways to eat in Malaysia. When you’ve picked what you want, sat down and started eating someone will come around with a little ticket book and tally up your meal. They leave it on your table and you pay on the way out.  You’ve really gone to town if you’ve managed more to rack up more than ten or fifteen ringgits per head.

It’s all about big flavour – there’s nothing pretty here.


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