At one of the many recent Southeast Asian lunar New Year festivals my good friend Dave Cook of Eating in Translation spoke excitedly about a new spot in Flushing, “Mama Khao’s.” At least that’s what I thought he said, until he informed me that the new Malaysian joint is named Mamak House, after the mamak who as I just learned from Wikipedia are “Tamil Muslims of Malaysian nationality, whose forefathers mostly migrated from South India to the Malay Peninsula and various locations in Southeast Asia centuries ago.” As Dave explained that the joint was started by a gal who runs a mamak-style catering outfit I thought, “Boy my Singaporean friends are gonna be excited about this place.” Whenever I talk to them about Malaysian food in New York City, they always say something to the effect of, “It’s OK, but it’s not the same as back home. The Indian influence is missing.”
Last week Dave and I met at Mamak House for a late lunch. As I walked in I recalled that it used to be a Dongbei joint with table cooking in fact, several of the grill tables remain. The menu, is filled with mamak specialties, including an intriguing weekend only dish: nasi ulam utara, rice mixed with more than 10 types of herbs and roasted shrimp. The back of the bill of fare is adorned with pictures of spices from the aromatic to the fiery. The murtabak ($6.95) , savory envelopes filled with ground beef, were subtly flavored with clove and other spices. A sidecar of sharp pickled onions accompanied the mellow Malaysian beef blintzes.
Next up an order of crispy okra mamak style ($8.95).The crunchy pods looked rather like Indian pakora. They were served with a sweet chili sauce, which I like to think of as the Southeast Asian version of the duck sauce found in the American Chinese restaurants I used to go to with my folks when I was a kid.
For a main dish we had the assam pedas ($18.95), a bright red curry made with tart tamarind, chili, and laksa leaf. It came to the table brimming with shrimp and okra pods. I grabbed a spoon and took a slurp of the broth, and then something happened to me which hasn’t happened in years, I coughed rather violently. The combination of the heat from the kitchen and the heat of the chilies caught me by surprise. Poured over rice though, the sour spicy broth was quite nice.
As we were eating, Nani Yusuf Hughie of Mami Penang Cooking came out of the kitchen to say hello. She told us a bit about the genesis of the restaurant, including the fact that she’d never cooked in a restaurant kitchen. She seemed excited, if a tad overwhelmed about her new venture. The thing that struck me though was the cheerful humility with she told us she once catered for the Sultan of Brunei. I feel lucky to have her and Mamak House in Queens, and can’t wait to explore more of the menu .
Mamak House, 35-20 Farrington St., Flushing, 718-886-4828