The Significance Of ‘Mamak’ Stalls To Malaysians

When one thinks of Malaysia, one would no doubt think of the food. Nasi lemak, kuih (local cakes), char kuey teow, you name it! Malaysia’s multiculturalism has contributed to the variety of food we have, which leads us on to ‘mamak‘ stalls. Every Malaysian knows what a ‘mamak‘ stall is and if you are a tourist planning on coming to Malaysia, dining at one of these ‘mamak‘ stalls would definitely complete your entire trip!

A 'mamak' stall serves a array of affordable yet generous amount of food for a meal. It has become, over the years, a big part of Malaysia's cultural scene.
A typical scene at a ‘mamak’ stall with people enjoying their drinks, if not food. A good way to identify if a restaurant is a ‘mamak’ stall is by looking at their tables and chairs! Usually there would be plastic tables and chairs on the side of a road but there are also stalls with metal tables and chairs such as in this picture.
Source: Image by Azreey at the English Wikipedia

The term ‘mamak‘ originally refers to migrants of the Indian Muslim community mainly from the southern region of (currently) India or Pakistan. Over the past six centuries, the mamak travelled the lands, trading with the locals wherever they sailed. Eventually, some of them stayed behind, settled down and started businesses. Instead there is a wider meaning behind it.

Beginning Of A Uniquely Malaysian Culture

Kayu Nasi Kandar has eleven branches spread out across mainly Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Penang. They even have a signature outlet located in Malacca that is open 24 hours just like most of their other branches.
The hanging overhead board displaying an array of dishes can be seen at the entrance of the Kayu Nasi Kandar’s outlet in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. For more options, a detailed menu is at your disposal!

The mouth-watering dishes have enabled the ‘mamak’ stalls in Malaysia to thrive in Malaysia over the years. It is safe to say that all Malaysians have grown to share the love for these appetising (not to mention, sinful) meals. It is here where you can find Malaysians enjoying their favourite meals and having friendly conversations in a lively ambience. Malaysians generally regard ‘mamaks’ as the equivalent of a Western concept café. Comparing the ‘mamak‘ with a modern café, they are open-air establishments and are usually open 24 hours, seven days a week and all year round. Kuala Lumpur is known to be the city that never sleeps. It is obvious the ubiquitous ‘mamak‘ stalls epitomise the bustling nightlife in this capital city.

The Flourish Of ‘Mamak’ Stalls

It has become a favourite hangout for most Malaysians during the wee hours in the morning, especially during football seasons. ‘Mamak‘ stalls now have televisions set up for people to catch up with their favourite sports or football teams live on TV. The ‘mamak‘ stalls will be packed to the brim during major sports events where our national athletes are competing internationally. The other reason contributing to the success of these ‘mamaks‘ is the inexpensive meals along with its reasonable portions. It has become a popular and favoured al fresco eatery among Malaysians today. Here comes the next question: what does a ‘mamak‘ stall look like and how do you spot one? It is as easy as pie! Just be on the look out for foldable tables and chairs along the street or even over parking spaces and voila you’ve found them!

Teh tarik is a must to order if you are dining at a "mamak" stall. Composed of tea mixed with condensed milk, it definitely makes a perfect drink for all sweet tooths out there! To explain its name, the process of preparing the tea includes the action of "pulling" the tea upwards and poured into a cup to create bubbles.
‘Teh tarik’ or pulled tea, is Malaysians’ all-time favourite drink to enjoy at a ‘mamak’ stall. It can be ordered either as a hot or cold drink, but most of the time it is enjoyed hot.
Source: Image by Alpha from Wikimedia Commons

“Jom, Mamak!” “Aneh, Teh Tarik Satu!”

Closely-tied to the topic of food is our language. As a matter of fact, Malaysia is one of the very few countries whereby most of its citizens are either bilingual or multilingual. The significance about being a Malaysian is that we share a common lingua franca: the beauty of Malaysian-English (aka ‘rojak‘ language). Some of the common phrases synonymous to the topic of ‘mamaks‘ are: “Jom, lepak mamak!” (Let’s go hang out at a mamak!), and “Aneh, teh tarik satu!” (One ‘pulled tea’, big brother!). As a mark of respect to call the ‘mamaks‘, Malaysians would use the word ‘aneh’ as a sign of respect.

The Big Reveal!

Most "mamak" stalls, although not all, do sell Nasi Kandar. Nasi Kandar is usually served as a meal consisting of steamed rice, and a variety of curries and side dishes of your choice.
The above is a picture of the Nasi Kandar I recently had at Kayu Nasi Kandar. As you can see, I took a fried chicken drumstick, vegetables (cabbage cooked with turmeric powder), and marmite sauce from one of the side dishes. The irregular shaped crisp on the upper right corner is papadum and is usually served with Nasi Kandar and banana leaf rice.

So, what’s with all the craze about Malaysians and meals at ‘mamak‘ stalls (other than the affordability and good food)? For starters we have the ever-famous delicious teh tarik perfect for anyone at any time of day and a taste of roti canai: the definition of plain but mouth-watering. If a plain roti canai isn’t for you and you are craving for something more substantial, just throw in an egg and you have roti telur! And if that’s not convincing enough, don’t fret, that’s not all! To further elaborate, there are also other main dishes that include mee goreng (fried noodles the mamak way), murtabak (minced chicken or beef packed in a packet of dough) and tandoori chicken that we eat with naan bread (oven-baked bread).

Usually at "mamaks" stalls, it is common for people to eat tandoori chicken with naan bread. There are various other types of naan breads, even cheese naan! This soft bread will definitely leave you craving for more!
This pizza looking bread is actually garlic naan (oven-baked bread) glazed with ghee (a type of butter) served with dhal which is a type of sauce eaten with naan, roti or everything in between! Naan bread is usually eaten with tandoori chicken as a staple meal.

Next Stop: ‘Mamak‘ Stalls!

Growing up in Malaysia with ‘mamak‘ stalls, I have found my perfect go-to ‘mamak‘ stall or Indian restaurant! Despite going there countless times, they never once disappointed me. Located in Cheras, Kayu Nasi Kandar is a ‘mamak‘ stall that serves a great variety of dishes. Ranging from nasi kandar to roti canai, believe me, you would end up ordering everything they have. Besides, did I mention that they are also open 24 hours? Check out their details here!

If you’re looking for a place to hang out with your friends or just to have a drink, drop by a ‘mamak‘ stall and ‘lepak‘ away! Below are some links to different websites showing lists of stalls or restaurants worth trying:

Want a foreigner’s take on this? Head on over and read it here!

About Kimberly WONG

Communications major, with a passion for reading, Kimberly (Kim for short) has a knack for learning new languages. Having worked in various industries helped her to further polish her linguistics skills too. Loves a healthy discussion about anything under the sun.

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