Mamak Knows Best

Good evening, night owls – this is Desiree Koh keeping you company on the late shift, where we take the gears down a notch and cruise across the causeway to Johor Bahru, just across the Malaysian border north of Singapore. Don’t touch that dial, let’s park it right here…

…where an open asphalt lot holds both cars and tin-topped tables on tottering legs for supping under the moon. The midnight mamak stall is the Malaysian greasy spoon – an open-air diner that’ll serve as late as you can eat, powered by griddles, goreng (fried dishes) and ghee. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the mamak stall is the country’s most culturally significant gastronomic icon, where gossip trades lips, soccer bets are laid, debts are collected, illicit affairs are commenced, marriages are ended, politics are analyzed, and Ramadan fasts are broken. Everyone comes to the mamak stall. If there was a mamak stall in Boston, Cheers would not be about a bar where everybody knows your name.

Flipping for roti canai – not a pancake because it is not made from batter, but a fried flatbread dipped in curry.

The Tamil Muslim-owned mamak stalls are completely versatile enterprises, and can cook anything to order that pleases your dark night fancies and fantasies, as long as you know how to say it right. What’s the mamak equivalent of “double bacon cheeseburger with onions and pickles, no tomato, no lettuce, extra fries?” It’s “Maggi goreng tambal ayam dan telor mata dan banyak sambal belacan masin tambahan.” That would be Maggi instant noodles (the most popular brand in Southeast Asia) cooked, then fried with a cornucopia of your choice of meat, token vegetables, topped with a sunny-side-up egg, seasoning from the packet (extra, in this request), topped with a sliced lime, and more sambal belacan, please! This is the quintessential post-drinking mamak stall staple.

Water is boiled in the open air kitchen – the cockpit of the mamak stall – to cook the Maggi noodles for goreng.

And instead of coffee as murky and soulful as the night, you’re ordering teh tarik alia, a milk tea infused with ginger, because you’re going to need all the digestive aid you can get after putting away a gut bomb supper this close to bedtime.

Currying flavors.

It is a requirement that you deliver your order concisely and know exactly what you want, because impatience is a virtue at the mamak stall. Woks are clanged and deep fryers fired up, dishes are tossed in front of you, you vacuum everything on the plates up like the last bus home might turn into a pumpkin anytime, the scrap piece of white paper with your order is slapped down by the greasy entrails of your utensils, you pay, and you go. You’re likely happy, and who cares how you might feel tomorrow? The night is still young.

Meat, meet stick.

Until you get up the next morning moaning in agony, because that roti canai has wrapped itself around your intestines like a blanket in knots. That won’t stop you from doing it all over again, though. Because a gourmet’s best friend is his mamak.

Ramly burgers, the infamous Malaysian rendition where thin patties are wrapped in fried eggs before insertion into heavily buttered buns, but not before mayo is squirted in to seal the deal.

We’ve got a few more minutes before the morning crew comes in, just enough time for one final dedication. It’s from “Grub Girl,” going out to all her friends – “you know who you are,” she says. She also says, “See you at the mamak stall.” Thanks for staying with me through your waking hours – this is your night line host, signing off.

More mamak:

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