For me, mee mamak is the metaphor for a simpler era. Back in the 60s and 70s, mee mamak used to be the dish that I waited for at about five in the evening for it was around that time that the mee goreng man would make his appearance. And in the Malay settlement that I lived in, his appearance was indeed something to look forward to.
In my part of the world, mamak is a term used to denote an Indian Muslim men who sell provisions or food. And mee mamak refers to the mee goreng that he happily tossed and fried in the wok. Mee goreng definitely banks on taste and aroma to entice. The riot of colours from the noodles and other vegetables did a wonderful job in enticing customers too. Hehehe … see mine in the wok! I guess those done by the masters-of-the-trade would be whoopingly more glorious!
Mamak mee would come, pushing his push cart, which was laden with ingredients to make delicious mee goreng. He would pick a strategic location which normally would be the junction of two small roads and from there enthusiastically announced his arrival by hitting the wok with the ladle. “Clang! Clang! Clang!” Simplistic you could say but effective nonetheless!
The clanging sound had the power to beckon. And beckoned the villagers, it certainly did! “Hah. The mamak mee is here!” And the crowd gradually formed up around him, plates in hands, indulging in neighbourly chat while waiting for their turn to be served. A social gathering, you could say. Many a gossips would have passed his ears but none left his lips. Excellent gatekeeper!
Mamak mee understood the concept of customers’ satisfaction and so fried mee to meet different tastebuds. “Mamak. Mee pedas,” said one or “Mamak. Mee kurang pedas,” said another. And to all requests he would readily said yes. His mee goreng business certainly thrived as reflected by his regular trips back to his kampung. Sometimes we wondered where he came from? We never did ask and he never did divulge.
Those days, we had to bring our own plates. We could even bring the eggs to add to the sizzling mee if we wanted to. The extra effort brought its own incentive. The price of a plate of mee goreng got slashed. And that was pretty attractive to many customers. Can we bring eggs to a mee goreng seller today? Hmmm … Hehehe … I wouldn’t try it.
Mamak mee would adroitly apply his culinary skills and turned the noodles of your choice into the most delicious mee goreng, mee hoon goreng or kwetiau goreng. Sometimes when the crowd was quite thin he would indulge you by making mee kuah – mee with gravy . Sluuurp – and half the mee would be gone!
So the push carts that we see in spanking malls these days aren’t that novel after all. Selling by push carts have been around for a long long time. I guess the only difference is that push carts of bygone days got pushed in search of customers whereas today the push carts got permanently stalled at certain spots in malls. Still there are some places in the world where push carts really mean push carts. The carts are used to peddle traditional dishes – like ketoprak for instance.
Mee mamak is still made the same way but it is no longer peddled by using pushcarts. It has gone into kopitiams, foodcourts and restaurants. But I still prefer to make my own mee goreng. Mamak mee that is and doing it the mamak way.