Many NYC chefs are inspired by world travels. Malaysian-born Tommy Lai, the chef at Rasa, didn’t need to go that far. Rasa’s food is authentic home cooking from Lai’s native land — many dishes came from family recipes, and some creations can’t be found anywhere else in NYC. Rasa, which is co-owned by Lai’s sister Camie, is even named for the duo’s hometown.
Lai, New York’s first Malaysian chef to receive a Michelin star, talked with us about classic Malaysian cooking and how to experience the best of culinary culture in NYC.
What is Malaysian cuisine, exactly?
Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot, a combination of foods and cooking traditions from around Southeast Asia, including the early Chinese and Indian migrants who brought with them practices and spices. There’s also the influence of the indigenous people from east Malaysia. Add the Peranakans and Eurasian communities to the mix, and you will get a symphony of flavors and complex layers.
Along with eating at your restaurant, what are some ways to can explore Malaysian culture in NYC?
The best way to explore a culture is through its food. At Rasa, we’ve also started showcasing traditional Malay dance to help New Yorkers get familiar with the culture, and are planning to showcase Malaysian artists in the near future. I would also check out the NYC Malaysian Tourism Board … it has information on events that may be taking place in and [around] NYC.
Rasa is located in Greenwich Village. What are some of your favorite spots in the neighborhood?
Some of my favorite haunts to traipse to are Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Big Gay Ice Cream, and Artichoke Basille’s Pizza. These places provide the pleasures of all things simple and tasty: coffee, ice cream, and pizza.
What are some of your earliest food memories?
My earliest childhood memories consist of a few special dishes. The first is roti canai – arguably Malaysia’s best breakfast meal – bread which has been kneaded, thrown, flattened, oiled, and cooked and then eaten with curry or sugar. I also remember the mornings when I could get an authentic nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf, another breakfast dish, that consists of rice cooked in coconut milk. It’s typically served with fried anchovies and peanuts, chili, a slice of cucumber or two, and sometimes an egg.
For days when the palate craved something sweet, there was nothing more satiating than roti bakar with kaya, simply translated to mean “toasted bread with coconut jam.” Not just any coconut jam, but the type we used to eat, made of coconuts and palm sugar.
For someone who has never had Malaysian food before, what are some good starter recipes, both to taste and to cook?
One good starter recipe to taste and cook is nasi lemak. It could be as simple as coconut rice – rice cooked in coconut milk and a little salt – and served with some protein like chicken curry, peanut, and anchovies fried together, and easy-to-make sambal, a concoction of onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili all simmered together.
If you had one free day to spend in NYC, what would you do?
If I had a day to spend in NYC, I would begin in Greenwich Village with some Malaysian coffee and roti bakar at Rasa. Then, I’d head to Washington Square Park, as it’s very relaxing to sit by the fountain and people-watch. I am also a big fan of the Tibet House on 15th Street. There’s always something to see or do there: Dalai Lama events, annual concerts, interesting art exhibitions.
Next I’d go to Chelsea Market to look around or maybe have dinner. It’s got such a variety of food there. I do enjoy Buddakan a lot. It’s got great food, service, and décor, with both huge rooms and small ones. I also enjoy Chelsea Wine Vault, since I am always looking for wines that could pair with multi-layered Asian cuisine. The other day I came across a chardonnay that was not so buttery. The selection of wine is out of this world, with knowledgeably helpful staff.