IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
There’s mesmerising movement in the front window as deft, black-aproned chefs transform pale balls of dough into thin, satiny roti. Stretch, roll, flip. Stretch, roll, flip …
One becomes the classic roti canai, grilled quickly then plumped into a fluffy, golden ball and laid on a serving platter beside a dollop of fiery red sambal and a duo of russet-toned dipping sauces. Another becomes a paper-thin sweet roti tisu, nicked across its radius then heated until crisp enough to be shaped into a tall, pointed cone that stands independently.
There are 10 versions of roti on the menu, from savoury to sweet.
Mamak’s arrival in Melbourne late last year was anticipated by Malaysiaphiles who knew of its reputation for speedy, authentic cuisine, via its Sydney cousins. In Malaysia, mamaks were traditionally roadside stalls serving cheap roti canai, teh tarik (milky, sweetened tea) and dishes of noodles and nasi goreng (spicy fried rice).
Sydneysiders loved it so much that they expanded the stall, with a second restaurant in Chatswood. Julian, who had lived in Melbourne, was keen on conquering the south, and says it was always a matter of time.
He was the original “roti man”, turning the dough for Alan, who manned the grill, while Clement sorted the satay offering. Julian says the trio has slowly passed skill and formula to cooks in its three restaurants. Roti chefs take at least nine months to acquire their skills, he says.
Admittedly, Melbourne’s Mamak is not for everyone. Queues for tables can be long, although efficient staff keep things moving. Speedy dining feels appropriate, so plan your night around the food, rather than the other way around. It’s a set-up favoured by the Malaysian community and students, as well as noisy family groups and night owls seeking sustenance.
Cleverly, the trio has kept its menu short and sweet – and it’s identical at all three venues. From the roti menu, select roti telur (an egg variety), roti planta (a rich, buttery version), roti bawang (loaded with red onion) and satisfying murtabak (filled with chicken or lamb, onion, cabbage and eggs), then on to the list of eight mains, three salads, two rice and two noodle dishes.
Charry chicken satay skewers are finger-sized and moreish – ideal as a shared appetiser, or late-night snack, although they do take about 15 minutes from time of order – and arrive beside an oversized bowl of sweet, spicy peanut sauce. Mains include a terrific kari kambing (slow-cooked, spicy lamb curry) in a fragrant coconut and tamarind sauce. There are also chicken, fish and vegetarian curries.
Salads include kacang panjan belacan (beans, chillies and shrimp paste) and stir-fried water spinach. Sambal tiger prawns and cuttlefish are on our next-time list.
To appreciate the Mamak experience, a hot or iced tea or coffee is essential. But be warned, the teh halia – a big glass beer mug filled with ginger-infused sweet, frothy tea – is no kind of palate cleanser, or food enhancer. I wanted to give the teh ‘O’ ais limau (tea with a splash of lime) a run instead, but it failed to arrive.
Desserts include four sweet roti offerings – there’s one with sliced bananas, the aforementioned cone and a roti bom, described as “thicker, richer, and sweeter”, which sounded like overkill. There’s also an ais kacang (a concoction of red beans, corn, grass jelly, rose-syrup and sweetened milk on a mountain of shaved ice) that sounded authentic, but there were no takers. Despite misgivings, the roti kaya (filled with a pandan and coconut spread) with vanilla ice-cream, was damn good.
Mamak is another link in our ever-expanding food culture chain and a city dining experience worth checking out. Take the family, meet your mates; but don’t seek quiet romance.
Mamak, 366 Lonsdale Street, city
Chefs Julian Lee, Alan Au, Clement Lee
Prices Roti and satay $5.50-$16; mains $14-$19; desserts $6-$9.50
Open Daily 11.30am-10pm; Friday and Saturday supper to 2am
Phone 9670 3137 (no bookings)
The Verdict Worth a look
Most of the colour and noise at this city hot spot comes from the effervescent crowds, tucking cheerfully into bowls of curry, plates of roti, rice and noodles. Canteen-style veneer tables with banquettes and timber stools are surrounded by warm chocolate walls under a constellation of downlights. There are striking “self portraits” of the chefs and staff in action around the space, which seem to reflect the energy across the room as the ever efficient staff move swiftly from table to table.