Last Update: April 2020
4 min read
When I think of mamak food stalls, oh my….instant craving. If you haven’t tried a mamak stall on your visit to Malaysia, you might as well haven’t been there at all. That’s how significant they are in Malay culture. And once you have been, you’ll keep going again and again.
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Mamak Stalls explained
Over centuries ago, Tamil Muslims from India migrated to what now is Malaysia. They brought their culture and their food, both of which are now completely integrated in Malay society. Maa-ma is the old Tamil word for ‘uncle’ and the Malay added a silent K at the end. So now, where the Peranakan have their kopitiams, the Indian Muslims have mamak stalls. Open air eateries serving a fusion of simple Indian Muslim and Malay food.
Some mamak stalls are more established, almost like restaurants and sometimes occupying large parts of a street. Others may just consist of a small food cart and two or three fold-able tables. However, they all fulfill the role of local meeting place. It’s where you socialize and hang out with your friends, where you share the latest gossip while enjoying some of the tastiest food accompanied by a frothy teh tarik.
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As said, the mamak stalls serve a fusion of Malay and Indian Muslim food, meaning halal. No pork, but lot’s of roti canai, roti telur, tosai, chapati with curries and dal. The fusion with Malay food is visible in dishes like nasi kandar, nasi lemak, mee goreng and mee rebus. Also no alcohol, but instead refreshing drinks like teh tarik, iced Milo and lime ice tea.
Except for fresh roti and chapati, many (but not all) mamak stalls serve their food “buffet style”. Either you fill your own plate from the buffet or a server will do it for you. The staff keeps track of what you consume and will present you with the bill before leaving. So, actually you never know the exact amount until you are presented with the bill. Fortunately, mamak food is among the cheapest around.
Where to eat Mamak Food
Mamak food stalls are everywhere in Singapore and Malaysia, but particularly in George Town, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Some of them operate 24/7 except for a few hours on Friday when owners and staff are expected to worship at the Mosque.
In George Town, don’t bother with some of the big names. I won’t name (and shame) them, but ever since they started to attract the larger crowds the quality has dropped significantly. Trust me, you’re better off trying one or more of the smaller places below.
George Town, Penang
Roti Canai Gemas (51, 29, Jalan Gemas,). Arguably the best roti place in George Town for breakfast. Try the roti canai special, with chicken and beef, yum.
Tajuddin Hussain (45-63, Lebuh Queen, George Town, Penang). Excellent curries, biryani and nasi kandar. I specifically recommend the duck curry (kari itik), it’s to die for.
Santa Chapati (#11, Jalan Tun H S Lee, Wilayah Persekutuan). Just a 10-15min walk from the famous Petaling street market in Chinatown you can find this small lunch place. They serve tosai (dosa) and the best chapatis for prices as low as RM8-10. Opens from 6.30am to 6.30pm.
Nasi Lemak Bumbung (Jalan 21/11b, Sea Park, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in the alley next to restaurant Sun Fatt Kee). A bit out of the way from the tourist center, but good for a more local experience. The stall itself may not be very big, but the the many tables are spread out over the whole alley. This very popular mamak stall specializes in Nasi Lemak and fried chicken. Opens at 5.30pm until the wee hours.
Like the kopitiams and street food vendors of all sorts, the mamak stalls certainly have their place in the Malay melting pot society. They are an integral part of the national identity and cultural heritage of Malaysia.
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Malay food might just be my favorite. What’s your favorite cuisine? Let us know in the comments below, I’m curious.
George Town and Kuala Lumpur are great destinations to enjoy mamak food on Peninsular Malaysia . To sample it on Malaysian Borneo, head to Kota Kinabalu.