When one thinks of a country or city there are certain idiosyncrasies that pop into your head. For example when you think of London what you get is Big Ben, red telephone booths & black cabs (oh and some old lady with a burger king crown on her head). What Kuala Lumpur has is the Twin Towers, really bad cabbies & above all else in my opinion the mamak restaurant. I'm not a tourist so you don't see me bending my body at weird angles to get a shot of the Twin Towers; I don't take public transport so errant cab drives are irrelevant (are those new anti-haggling measures working?); I do however live in KL and I love to eat so when in doubt of where to have my next meal the mamak is where I turn to.
There are certain things that I find endearing about eating at a mamak be it a stall, van or proper restaurant. First of all the mamak is a place where all Malaysians converge; whether you are down-and-out or well-to-do, you will visit the mamak at least once a week. Another thing that I quite like is that everyone is called "Bos", from the server to the customer. When you want to order you just raise your hand and call out Bos and when it's time to pay get called Bos as well; it's almost utopian. And the mamak is a cheaper alternative compared to some other food outlets, though that's not always the case. Once I got charged RM7 for a mee soup which is scandalous. These mamaks are what we call "cekik darah" and must be avoided at all costs so that they will die out.
RM1.20 for a Roti Canai!!! Scandalous!! Avoid this place
The standard meal at any decent mamak is roti canai and teh tarik. Just to illustrate how important roti canai is a few years ago when the Gov was planning too reduce the subsidy for flour the mamaks were threatening to stop making roti canai. And over the years the menu at a mamak has diversified, you can now find Thai and Western dishes on the menu. There is even a variation on the basic foodstuff like roti tisu, roti milo, naan cheese, naan keema and many more.
Of course its not all great. Service and cleanliness can be a factor. The standard excuse at a mamak is 'It's on the way'; once it took forty five minutes before our food arrived. A girl I knew in sixth form told me that once she saw the waiter at a local mamak drop a fried chicken drumstick onto the floor, he then picked it up, brushed it off and put it back on the plate. Another negative in my opinion is the yuppie culture creeping into the mamak (many now have wi-fi). Occasionally you can find people with laptops sitting there (it's amazing that they get upset when you look at their screen); personally I think they should just stay at Starbucks.
Sometimes you can find mamak culture abroad, a friend of mine living in Sydney (Rachel Kelapakepala; that's her actual name) went to a restaurant called "Mamak". She ordered a rojak and paid AU$12 (total rip btw) and she says that over there they eat roti canai with Vegemite; it's not the same. I'd just like to point out that Australian mamak culture doesn't even come close to MALAYSIAN mamak culture which is the best.
However above all else the mamaks serves an important social function as a place where people gather to meet with one another. One of the most frequent sights you see at the mamak are many "Shadow Government"; these are small groups of mostly retired men sitting at tables discussing how the country should be run. Now I'm not the one who is in a position to judge whether the various ideas on domestic and foreign policies are infeasible or otherwise. But seriously, when you spend most of your time at a mamak you're probably not going to effect government decisions very much. The mamak also plays an important role during live sporting events; this is because they usually have satellite tv and there is the added convenience of having food and drinks just a few feet away. So during this years world cup you can expect many people to spend their nights there.
Recent gathering to watch a World Cup match
My favourite mamak is near Masjid India by the river, it's very small and basic compared to most mamaks but it does very good business. AS far as I'm concerned it has the best teh tarik and I do enjoy having a "roti special"; what's so special about it? I guess you just have to go and find out yourself.
"Proper" way to make a Teh Tarik demonstrated by a local
A "Mat Salleh" lame attempt to copy the Malaysian way. FAIL
Receipt photo taken by "Beardyman"