Even in Singapore, there isn’t really a restaurant about which I have feelings like I do for Mamuśka. In my memory, it has always been a lovely rose growing out of a dungheap – the original location was tucked away in Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, which is basically a set of a post-apocalyptic film that somehow got populated with shops.
And yet I went to that damned shopping centre, once or twice every week, just for this Polish place where the furniture was all mismatched, the decor centred around a TV that played exclusively Polish programmes, and the food was the embodiment of cheap and cheerful – and good. In its first year or so nothing cost more than a fiver; you could get a whole meal for ten pounds, dessert and all.
How has it been three years since I last came? But as it turns out, Mamuśka’s embrace is warm as ever, if not warmer still. Mamuśka is a replica of the bar mleczny (milk bar), greasy spoons with dairy-centred dishes which have fed working-class Poles for at least a century. So the ordering is done cafe-style – you order and pay at the counter, and a few minutes later someone calls out your number and you go get your heavily laden tray.
Their biggest weakness, the crapsack location, has changed; now Mamuśka is across the Elephant and Castle junction. There’s still nothing more than a tenner, though good business has allowed for some prettifying. The TV is still there, but in a larger space where they can play with lighting, wooden flooring and walls plastered with Polish words – useful ones like dziękuję (thanks) and proszę (please), and the really important ones like schabowy, goląbki and wodka.
Schabowy, simply put, is just pork cutlet – beaten thin, breaded and then fried, served with the oil still glistening and seeping from its thin coat. Also with a mound of potatoes and a vegetable of your choice. What it lacks in thickness the cutlet more than makes up for in its sheer plate-covering scale; this isn’t fine cuisine, but a blunt tool for curing hunger. And if that isn’t enough they now have an option to crown the schabowy with a chunky mushroom cream sauce.
Placki ziemnaczane – potato pancakes, a mainstay of Eastern European food – always come out looking a little overdone here, the fringes dark brown, snappy slivers of potato buried in its slightly gooey core. But the over-frying means they hold their texture even when doused with gravy – whether mushroom-based, a Hungarian-style beef goulash, or a white pork goulash that I’ve never seen anywhere else and which is my favourite – a mellow, broadly savoury gravy with accents of pepper and allspice.
Bigos, or hunter’s stew, occupies a special place in Polish cuisine – you know it is their national dish when their national epic has two solid stanzas on how awesome it is. (Get on it with the chilli crab/chicken rice poetry, Singapore.) Besides meat and sauerkraut, just about anything could go in a bigos; Mamuska’s rendition has sausages, the more rounded acidity of tomatoes, smoked meat that pulls off in appealing strings and chunks and bits of celery, onions… as a kitchen sink stew it is a good reflection on their kitchen.
Pierogis bear a resemblance to Chinese dumplings, but the differences are slight yet significant. With thick, stretchy skins of potato flour, they are meant to be rib-sticking – doubly so if you order the Ruskies, which are filled with a smooth puree of more potatoes, cheese and onions. Half of the pleasure is the liberal shower of bacon bits – with light golden grease – that goes on each plate of boiled dumplings.
A more substantial serving is the pork belly, which used to be a seasonal special but has now gone permanent. The meat is first roasted, but then doused in clear, gloopy gravy, the skin soaking it all up and turning into a squelchy, nutty-flavoured sponge. The meat is happily – but not overwhelmingly – porky in flavour. And along with its bed of kasha (buckwheat grains), it’s a dish that can easily feed two.
For dessert my favourite option is the szarlotka – one half filled with chunks of still tangy apples, the other half a crumbly, heavily buttered crust, warmed to melt the scoop of ice cream that it’s served with.
Still, I could go on and on about the menu but it’s not really why I like Mamuśka so much. It’s more their continued efforts to be a centre for the local Polish community, and the general human touch. Their brand of humour is slightly silly – a ‘vast selection’ of wines includes a red, a white, and even a rosé – and their treatment of customers, in a cafeteria environment that could easily be efficient and curt and hard-edged, is instead unstinting and friendly.
On my second visit the boss runs to get a glass of kompot – a cloudy, pulpy fruit beverage, redolent mostly of pears – for a guest who says he’s a first-time customer. Then I tell him about visiting way back when they were in the mall, and his first reaction is to get me a shot of chocolate syrup to go with my dessert for free. Dziękuję, Mamuśka, and stay awesome. I’m sure you’ll be around many summers with that attitude of yours, and I’ll be back whenever I’m back in London, for sure.
16 Elephant and Castle Road (map)
Sun – Thu: 9am – 11pm
Fri – Sat: 9am – midnight