On my very first trip to Sydney I was told by my cover artist, Richard, that I had to try this Malaysian place that did excellent roti, which was interesting because prior to that I had never had any roti in Australia that came close to comparing to the flaky goodness that you find on the roadside in Malaysia. Now the roti at Papa Rich comes close, although the rest of their food is a bit of a mixed bag, but Mamak was the first and the best I found—even if it was closed for renovation that first trip and it was a good year before I made it back up.
Mamak means ‘eat’ in Malay, and one funny thing about people in South East Asia is that their local knowledge is impeccable when it comes to knowing where the best food is, actually, that’s not the funny part. The funny part is the way they define the best food. “No, that stall has the best satay, and you need to go there for Ipoh Hor Fun, but not on Tuesdays,” and so on. One place will become known for a specific item, and when you want to eat that, you make a trip out for it. In this case, roti at Mamak.
For those of you who don’t know, Roti is traditionally an Indian bread—a dry, flaky wholemeal bread. Brought by workers to Malaysia, Roti has quickly become something different—a soft, flaky bread that is stetched paper thin, sometimes to the size of the entire griddle on which the bread is fried, and then folded and refolded into near melt-in your mouth buttery goodness that is just on the sweet edge of savoury and you wonder whether you could eat it with more than just curry.
In Malaysia, you can get roti in a number of varieties—plain, with egg, or with egg and onions fried inside. It’s one of the dishes I will happily return for, as well as satay that costs about ten ringgit (about three dollars Australian) for twenty skewers, and the real banana fritters—tiny, sweet ladies finger banana pieces battered and fried in some random oil that’s probably full of saturated fats that’ll make your arteries harden but are oh so delectable. For the longest time, Malaysian food in Australia tended to focus on the noodle and rice dishes, such as the ever present Nasi Goreng and the Char Kuey Tiao. Occasionally, if you were lucky, you’d find a place that did good Hainanese Chicken Rice, and you’d know it was good if the rice had been made with chicken stock, not yellow chicken salt (and I highly recommend Papa Rich for that). Mamak however, has made a name for itself on the strength of its roti, and the first thing you notice there—aside from the long queue outside—is the chefs in the open kitchen at the window, shaping and throwing the roti dough out on their long, stainless steel benches.
My personal favourite is the Chinatown branch, which is the original, and tends to be the easiest for me to get to when I’m in Sydney. I recommend getting there at least half an hour before you plan to eat, to ensure you get a table, and my personal ordering habits lean towards a few different types of roti, a couple of curries and then, if you’re still hungy, getting a banana roti, or a roti bom for dessert. The roti bom is an soft, extra buttery ball of wafer thin bread drizzled with honey, and takes the roti across the edge into true dessert territory, and the banana roti (or roti pisang, to use its Malaysian name) is a bit of homage to the banana fritter, with slices of banana trapped in a perfect grid pattern inside the roti, and the entire thing dusted with sugar that cooks into crunchy caramel on the hot plate. Neither quite has the drama of the giant roti tissue cone, that you will ooh and aah over when it passes your table on the way to someone else, but both are far superiour dishes in my opinion.
For the celiacs and non-bread lovers out there, Mamak does do some of the more standard Malaysian dishes, but frankly, if you’re not going for the roti, you might as well go somewhere else—Malaymas for example, where you’ll get excellent food and not have to wait as long for a table. I can’t comment on Mamak’s noodles or rice dishes though, I’ve never eaten them and don’t plan to.
Mamak has branches in Sydney’s Chinatown and Chatwood, and has just opened a restaurant on Lonsdale Street in Melbourne. Which means I no longer have to concede that Sydney has superior roti than Melbourne, which makes me a very happy man. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go line up if I’m going to have any chance of getting dinner on time.
Rating: Five spoons out of five.
Price: Reasonable, expect a meal between $15 and $25.