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Malaysian Immigrant Fulfills Dream of Opening Restaurant

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Camie Lai never lost sight of her dream of opening her own restaurant.

Lai, 47, spent nearly 24 years living in New York illegally after her father brought her and her brother from Malaysia when they were teenagers. Her terror of being caught kept her out of the city's schools and, for decades, prevented her from pursuing her longtime goal of owning her own business.

That all changed when Lai finally got a green card in 2002, enabling her to get her GED and associate's degree and, late last year, allowing her to open Rasa, a new Malaysian restaurant on West Eighth Street, with her brother.

"Everyone wants something in life," Lai said. "I grew up in a very poor family. I didn't want to go back to that kind of life." 

After years of working in other restaurants, she said, "I wanted something that's mine."

Lai and her brother Tommy Lai, chef at the new restaurant, named it "Rasa" for their hometown in Malaysia.

After spending so many years away from the home and the dishes they grew up with, the duo wanted to bring the comfort food they longed for to their new home. Favorite menu items include Assam Laksa, a tangy, spicy fish-based noodle soup with an alleged 1,000 ingredients, and the Beef Rendang, tender pieces of beef marinated in 32 spices and cooked on a very low heat for hours.

"These are the foods we miss most," said Michael Lai, the Lais' cousin and business partner.

Camie and Tommy Lai first came to New York with their father in 1984. The siblings had student visas and their father had a travel visa, but the visas expired while their green card applications were pending.

"That's when I started living in the dark," Camie Lai said.

Lai described anxious, trapped years during which she not only couldn't return to Malaysia to visit family, but she was even scared to take a bus across state lines to New Jersey.

By the time their father's green card was approved 10 years later, Camie and Tommy were over 21 and his status didn't carry over to them. That meant they had to pay another round of lawyer fees and wait another 10 years for their applications to be approved.

Finally, in 2002, they were.

In the meantime, the siblings had found jobs in restaurants where they worked their way up from the most menial kitchen tasks to managing cooking and operations. As the head chef at Laut in Union Square, Tommy Lai became the first Malaysian chef in New York City to earn a Michelin star in 2010, making some of the same dishes they serve at Rasa.

The menu at Rasa, which means "taste" in Malay as well as being the name of their hometown, is comprised mainly of the Lais' family recipes, which often have Chinese, Thai or Indian influences.

Curries, for example, can be made with tamarind and lemon for a more Indian flavor or coconut milk, like a Thai curry.

"That's the fun part of Malaysian cooking," Camie Lai said. "You can play with it."

Specialties at Rasa also include fluffy, buttery roti with coconut jam for dessert, served with silky Malaysian pulled tea. The coconut jam is made in-house and requires non-stop stirring for four hours.

"You cannot stop once," Lai said. "Once you stop, you fail."