HARDCOPY: Mamak restaurants add to pop culture
A NEW wave of Malaysian restaurants in the form of chic unconventional mamak cafes are mushrooming all over the place — in most cases occupying strategic corner shoplots in housing estates, heritage bungalows near popular nightspots or even disused cinemas.
And instead of the usual names that were so characteristic of the eateries, like Bismillah Restaurant or Restoran Rahman, we now have Canai n Such, Mamak Bistro, Pelita, Ayza, Original Nasi Kandar and many more fancy names, each offering the same kind of Malaysian favourites, but in a "cool" and trendy ambience that attracts the young like ants to sugar.
These are mainly Indian Muslim or mamak joints — nothing derogatory about the term because "mamak" means uncle and it is, in fact, a term of endearment particularly among Indian Muslims and Malays in Penang. Even Mamak Bistro shouts its name on the billboards and it is hugely popular.
The explosion is most evident in the Klang Valley and Penang. Evidently, mamak restaurants are perhaps the single most noticeable change in these areas over the last two years, according to an engineer who has just returned to Kuala Lumpur after an 18-month stint in the Middle East.
"It is a phenomenon probably as big as the advent of the cineplexes which pushed the traditional cinemas out of the picture," he said. "This is going to be part of Malaysian pop culture."
And we all thought that those various foodcourts which were becoming a big trend themselves would drive the traditional restaurants out of business.
What’s interesting about these restaurants is that they know how to attract the customers, particularly the young crowd and the yuppies — big screen TVs with amplified sound systems ideal for live football, comfortable chairs and tables not unlike the ones at Starbucks, brightly-lit interiors with clear colourful menu boards on the wall and ample outdoor tables.
The old days of the typical mamak restaurant in hot and humid shoplots with wet mosaic floors, tiled walls and cheap plastic chairs are over.
Most of these restaurants also operate 24 hours a day, providing a wide variety of Malaysian staples ranging from rice and curry to naan roti and sup kambing. I’m not sure about the quality of the food though despite some of the restaurants claiming to offer genuine Penang nasi kandar or the best briyani in town.
So it must be the ambience rather than the quality of food that draws most customers to chat for hours on end over their daily fix of teh tarik.
Service is normally very satisfactory due to the good number of waiters and helpers, mostly immigrant workers. The fierce competition among these restaurants is reflected on how they try to outdo each other on workers’ uniforms that give them a sense of identity. Some of the uniforms are designed with the colours of the Malaysian flag, some with hip black t-shirts, and so on.
I asked Muslim Restaurant Owners Association of Malaysia president Jamarulkhan Abdul Kadir the other day about what is causing the mamak restaurant boom and his answer was simple: A supply and demand situation.
He said the concept of the restaurants works on young people — food and entertainment blending just nicely with the environment.
"Many of the restaurants offer a sidewalk café kind of environment at just a fraction of the prices in the designer coffee shops," he added. "Where in the world can you get a piece of roti canai for 80 sen and thosai for RM1? Only in Malaysia. In India you pay 35 rupees for thosai and that’s about RM3.
"By being a 24-hour operation, we provide a cheap alternative to pubs, discos and clubs. Many young people flock to our restaurants to watch live soccer matches, just as some do in pubs and bars.
"Ours therefore provide clean fun because we don’t serve alcohol and we are too open for undesirable activities like drug-taking by our customers."
The restaurants also appeal to working professionals — not only those looking for quick meals but business lunches as well. According to Jamarulkhan, he has seen many business deals being concluded across the tables of mamak restaurants after fish-head curry treats.
Jamarulkhan, who runs the Restoran Syed chain, however said opening a new wave restaurant requires a lot of investment.
"Those days, you only need to spend about RM30,000 to start a decent restaurant. With this new concept, you need something between RM300,000 and RM1 million.
"But the returns can be good."
Jamarulkhan said many of the owners of mamak restaurants are carrying on a family business into the third or fourth generation.
Although some of the restaurants have many branches, they are not a franchised trade. "It’s not easy to start a franchise because this requires another level of business expertise. For instance, you have to have a central production unit to ensure consistency in quality. But we are getting there."
New Strait Times
When I read this article on New Strait Times, I chuckled. Seems it is the norm here too at Melbourne ;)
The most famous restaurant among Malaysian students here without doubt is Bismi restaurant. It was renowned for its many tasty and mouth savouring food. It even has many branches here at Melbourne scattering all over the city.
If you would like to feel the atmosphere of Malaysia, just go to Bismi Restaurant. With the taste of Malaysian foods and with the full crowd of Malaysian and Singaporean over there, that is the best you can afford to release your homesickness ;) That by the way is only for those who are homesicks.
In my opinion, Bismi is best for its food and since it was just a far cry from my house, what do you expect. Surely will I be visitng this place quite often.
My housemates even made a joke about Bismi restaurant. Bismi ie with the name of restaurant. How's that for a name :D