Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cheap Eats Review: Malaysian Restaurants - Mamak, Kaki Lima,Temasek and Malay Chinese (Sydney, Australia)

I've always wondered when Malaysian food will become "the next food fashion"......I guess it has "kinda" finally arrived. Nonetheless, it's been, so far, limited to Malaysian street food served as it is......To progress and avoid becoming the next food fad, the challenge is whether Malaysian cuisine can be interpreted and elevated  into a modern and contemporary form. Unfortunately, no one has taken up the gauntlet ...... with some fine exceptions such as Cheong Liew many years ago in South Australia.

Here, two restaurants serving authentic Malaysian cuisine are reviewed - Mamak and Kaki Lima. However, since we are discussing Malaysian food, our favourite and undisputed best Malaysian restaurant, Temasek, is mentioned also, alongside with Malay Chinese Restaurant.

Mamak *

The word "mamak" refers to migrant Indians who made Malaysia home and embraced Islam as their religion - and historically, operated street-side food stalls. It is not hard to spot Mamak in Goulburn Street, Chinatown Sydney......just look for the constant long queue during lunch or dinner time. Those who wait patiently are entertained by the open "roti" (bread) kitchen - where chefs knead and twirl the various types of roti on offer and rewarded by an authentic Malaysian street food experience.

The menu is simple and has a good variety of rotis. Mamak is famous for its roti canai but we ordered the roti tissue and roti bom - rotis that require slightly more skill to make compared with the standard roti canai.

The roti tissue came in its authentic cone shape. Thin and crisp, the roti tissue came accompanied with two  curry dippings - the standard Malaysian curry and a dhal curry; both of which tasted wonderfully authentic. To be picky, the roti tissue was slightly too sweet and could have been thinner. Roti tissue and roti bom are listed as dessert in the menu and you can choose the roti to come with curry or ice cream.

Next was the roti bom (made with chunks of butter inserted into the dough and rolled scroll-like) - a thick roti, crisp on the outside and sweet, buttery and dense on the inside. Definitely heavy and rich!

The nasi lemak was the standout. The fragant coconut flavoured rice was perfectly cooked and sufficiently seasoned. A bit more coconut and pandan leaves would have made it perfect. Crispy anchovies and crunchy peanuts added texture and layers of flavours.The pièce de résistance was the sambal (Malaysian chilli sauce) - wonderfully flavoured and balanced - not too spicy, hints of balacan (fermented shrimp paste), salty and sweet. Mix the sambal with the anchovies and coconut rice, and magic!

The drinks tasted authentic too - condensed milk powered tea and coffee (teh and kopi tarik)- quenches the heat and matches the potent flavours and spices.

The mee goreng tasted authentic but somehow lacked the real "mamak" flavours.

Mamak has successfully brought the essence of Malaysian food in downtown Sydney. Mamak is worth a try for those wondering what the fuss Malaysian street food is all about.....if you are willing to wait or arrive early!

Cheap Eats Rating (Mamak): 15/20

Kaki Lima

There are two Kaki Lima's (both on Anzac Parade) - the original tiny shop in Kingsford and the new larger, modern outpost in nearby Kensington. Slightly clean and sterile, the larger Kaki Lima  in Kensington offers a more extensive menu than Mamak (with exception to their Kingsford restaurant).

Consistency has been an issue during our many visits. The nasi lemak is good....but not great. The rice can sometimes be under cooked - slightly firm, and on the last visit almost devoid of significant coconut flavours. The anchovies were borderline crispy and peanuts slightly marred by stale oil flavours. The sambal anchovies was my favourite component on the plate and had just enough flavours to lift the entire dish. The option of beef rendang or chicken curry are average stuff.

Mee goreng is tough to rate since the same dish almost never tastes exactly the same each time.....ranging from very good to ....forgettable.

Laksa with vermicelli noodles was mild and pleasant....capturing the essence of a Malay-style laksa.

Drinks falls short - the teh tarik was embarrassingly poor.....I wonder why they chose not to brew their own tea! 

Maybe a more focused and manageable menu without compromising quality and consistency is the key for Kaki Lima to elevate beyond passable mediocrity.....A definite positive here is the lack of queues!

Cheap Eats Rating (Kaki Lima): 12/20

Temasek **

The problem with Temasek (for us, anyway) is its location in Paramatta......Apart from that, there is really not much to complain about - beautifully cooked and prepared with quality ingredients.

There are too many things to love here....Hainanese chicken rice, sambal kangkong, mee siam, laksa, char koey teow....all at par if not better than average food stalls in Malaysia.

45 minute drive vs. 8 hour flight to Malaysia/Singapore......I'll pick the drive! A proper full review with photos to be updated soon.

Cheap Eats Rating (Temasek): 18/20

Malay Chinese Restaurant

An old favourite and massively popular among CBD office workers during lunch time......this is a place to experience Malaysian street food in an almost Malaysian "kopitiam" (coffee shop) setting.

I would have rated this place ** (2 stars) several years back but, unfortunately, standards have fallen in recent times.....the laksa - still one of the best examples in town is now a "watered-down" version of its former self and the weekend crowd favourite prawn noodles (har mee) has likewise down graded from fragrantly sweet prawn soup noodle to a disappointingly mild flavoured one.....tasting as if one former bowl of soup is now diluted into two!

A place that now rests on its past merits due to lack of real competition....... (will update with photos IF we do go back, however, with the watered down laksa and prawn mee, there's less incentive now to head back).

Cheap Eats Rating (Malay Chinese Restaurant): 13/20

By Gastronomic G.

Rating explained:

Scores 18 to 20 = *** (3 stars) = World class and close to perfection
Scores 16 to <18 = ** (2 stars) = An exceptional and special dining experience
Scores 15 to <16 = * (1 star) = Very good to great dining experience
Scores 13 to <15 = Good but not memorable
Scores 10 to <13 = Acceptable
Scores <10 = Are you sure you want to eat here?