The digital reincarnation of a national bestseller by KIT LEEE (now known as ANTARES)

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Mysterious Mamak

Just watch him tarik the teh to cool it for his customers. The tea-stall Mamak is a pretty cool customer himself. He could 'pull' tea in free fall without spilling a drop - while balancing a beedi on his lower lip and making a statement on Economic Determinism.

Without the Mamak there would be no teh tarik. And without teh tarik life would be impossible in Malaysia.

Why do people call him 'Mamak'? The most plausible explanation is that 'Mamak' is a corruption of 'Mohammed.' Among Indian Muslims there is a high incidence of names that begin with Mohammed - or Mohd. for short. Mohd This and Mohd That. Hence the generic nickname 'Mamak' (sometimes rendered as 'Mama').

One of the mysterious things about the Mamak is how he's managed to corner the market in teh tarik and roti canai. Now he's a real champ when it comes to making roti canai (called parotha in some regions). Chances are the Mamak invented these greasy wheatmeal pancakes that have become an absolute staple in the Malaysian diet. The roti making process itself is a marvel worthy of video documentation, with a visual fascination that's equal to glass blowing or fine pottery.

The Mamak lives for work. His idea of a holiday is going off to help an uncle start a beriani restaurant in Sabak Bernam or Subang Jaya. If he feels it's time for a change of scene he might work out a transfer arrangement with a cousin who owns a chain of coffeeshops in Fiji. A two-year stint in a provision shop on Christmas Island is his idea of a long rest. Yes, the Mamak is essentially a multinational mini-corporation. During the extraordinarily long hours he works the Mamak's only respite is when he takes a few moments off to update his accounts - meticulously kept in a series of 555 notebooks stashed away in a secret drawer.

The Mamak's mysterious vanishing act could also mean he's gone back to India to see his wives and kids and to keep an eye on some property over there. Over here, most Mamaks apparently have no real homes. Often, half a dozen Mamaks team up and rent a cheap room in some shophouse. No problem with congestion: they sleep in shifts.

Another subspecies of Mamak can be found along the five-foot-ways imperturbably manning their own 'hole-in-the-wall' drugstores-cum-newsstands where an unimaginable range of everyday necessities - from salted pumpkin seeds and preserved plums to anti-dandruff shampoo, prickly heat talc, flashlight batteries, condoms, toothpicks, and the latest issue of Movie News - can be obtained without fuss or embarrassment. No way will these indispensable sidewalk institutions ever be put out of business by the 24-hour 7-Elevens. Why, in an emergency, the Mamak will gladly accept foreign currency - since he has a couple of nephews who are licensed money changers.

Then you have the upmarket Mamaks. They don't have stalls - they own respectable stores - usually expanded, air-conditioned versions of the downmarket 'hole-in-the-wall' operations; but textiles, textbooks, and tapestries are also favoured items of trade. The upmarket Mamak is usually well-established enough to have bought a house or two in the suburbs - which means he's probably married and has school-going kids - but he's likely to have retained an instinctive distrust of banks (unless owned by him), preferring bullion instead.

What does the Mamak do for entertainment? He doesn't drink, doesn't womanise, is rarely seen at the racetrack or at the movies, doesn't dance, doesn't socialise much, so what does he do? No mystery: he gathers his loose change and sorts it into piles of different denominations which he neatly wraps in paper and takes to the bank to be converted into paper money. Then he goes home and plots world domination.

Occasionally you will meet a Supermamak or two. But don't you dare call them Mamaks. In their presence the endearing term 'Mamak' sounds like an insult. Preferred items of trade amongst Supermamaks: jewellery, armaments, scholarship, and political influence. Ordinary Mamaks send their earnings to India. Supermamaks operate numbered bank accounts in Zurich.

beedi - aromatic miniature cheroot sold in bundles.
teh tarik - literally, 'stretched tea'; cooled by pouring from one mug to another, an authentic art-form.
roti canai - pronounced 'cha-nai'; tasty wheatmeal pancake (see the Gourmet's Glossary in the chapter called 'The Cari Makan Ethic').
beriani - rice prepared with saffron and various spices.


Roti Kacang Merah said...

Dear Sir,

just got to know about your blog thro bloghopping. what a GREAT blog you have here!

When my husband went to Germany and Turkey for a week in 2006, boy was he relieved when he found teh-tarik and roti canai/telur when he landed in Dubai!

Aiyoh, as if ada 'mundrum' or something in those two - teh tarik and roti telur. He cannot live without those two even for a day in a week!

Anonymous said...

I am tertarik with this post but it has tertarik for some time. Just "tarik"ing your legs!
BTW, Happy New Year 2008 to you!

Starmandala said...

I was away from my computer for a few days, nice to see fresh comments here! Well, RKM, I've just posted the front cover of the book - which means this bookblog is now COMPLETE! I may add a few items in the Appendix from time to time - but I won't be updating this blog from now on. Hope to see you at my active personal blog!

Happy 2008 to you too, wmag! Thanks for being such a dutiful comments leaver :-)

MAHAGURU58 said...

Hi there bro!

Loved reading this article. You have got it spot on!

When are you compiling all these into a book?

Best regards,

M.Y. said...

Hi there, mahaguru58! Are you just teasing or didn't you know that this blog was actually a book that came out in April 1989 - yup, almost 20 years ago!

MAHAGURU58 said...

Dear Antares,

Honestly, I didn't know!

I will seek it out the next time I am at Kinokuniya, MPH Bookstores or Times?

Anyway, thanks for sharing with us your heartfelt outlooks on things Malaysiana.

I am a fan.


MAHAGURU58 said...

I'm so embarrassed. Didn't see the reference to the book at the uppermost right hand corner of your blog.


I need to look around the next time not just focus on the writings :P

Now I know better :D

Starmandala said...

No worries, mahaguru58, the book is out of print. I intend to turn it into a POD publication but have been too malas to convert everything into pdf and upload. Will announce it when I finally get that done :-) Thanks for your kind comments!

Anonymous said...

Well Kit, how much do u think i can sell my copy? its brown with stains, smells weird ... some pages are like dis attaching itself from the book

but yeah every single page is still there ...

not exactly in mint condition but definitely readable ...


Anonymous said...

this blog has got all the text, what missing are the pics ... would noo really be complete without the pics ...

Starmandala said...

Hi Mr Kukujiao! Welcome to ADOI! ~ The Blog :-)

Two things: (1) The User ID "Kit" appears on the cover of this book but I no longer respond to being called that. The current User ID is "Antares." What's the difference? Imagine switching back to dial-up after you've experienced broadband... :-)

(2) The illustrations are all here. If you can't view them it means there's a data bottleneck on Blogger. When traffic is heavy, Blogger's image servers get jammed and images don't download for a while. A bit annoying, but digital tech is full of interesting kinks.

ADOI! has been out of circulation since 1995 or thereabouts. I still have 2 or 3 copies... so you might want to preserve your copy as an heirloom :-) Incidentally, I was shocked to learn that somebody on was offering a single used copy of my limited edition poetry collection ('Moth Balls') @ USD99.50!

Anonymous said...

20 years on.. and the people that migrate from India to help out at the mamak stalls now live in Bangsar.

MAHAGURU58 said...


Who is the artist who drew these cartoons?

casper c said...

Hello Encik MAHAGURU58 ....

Kit Lee is Antares or word it differently, in a past life, Antares was Kit Lee, comprende *#?

casper c said...

I couldn't resist replying Antares, though late to the ball and if you or any happen to be browsing the "funnies", wishing all a very happy Fatt Choy '14