Invasive species dining is sustainable food's next frontier, and Bun Lai's inventive sushi is at the vanguard of the movement
Sushi chef Bun Lai has a taste for the beach. He grew up exploring the craggy shore and rocky isles of coastal Connecticut, a passion he’s carried with him into adulthood. A few years ago, Lai and a friend were flipping over rocks along Long Island Sound, just to see what lie underneath. He was expecting to find the same green crabs he’s known since his youth. But “all of a sudden, we saw these crabs I hadn’t seen before,” he says. Lai caught some, brought them home, and looked them up.
They were Asian shore crabs, an invasive species that first showed up in the Sound in the 1980s. It’s made itself right at home, attacking the limited supply of plankton and larvae that native fish and shellfish need to survive. So Lai did what any sustainability-minded seafood chef would do: He excavated the crab meat from its shell and turned it into a sushi roll.
The dish “kanibaba”—made with Asian shore and Dungeness crabs and spinach, rolled up tightly in potato skin, infused with Asian shore crab stock, and topped with toasted havarti cheese and lemon dill sauce—is now one of the most popular items at Lai’s restaurant, Miya’s, in downtown New Haven. “We run out of them at this point,” he says. “We go out and get thousands of them, and we sell thousands of them every week or so.” Kanibaba has become the signature dish of his “Invasive Species Menu,” a chapter in Miya’s 60-page menu that reads like a manifesto on sustainability, spirituality, and the creative process.
As climate change warms the planet, organisms thrive in ecosystems that were once too cold, colonizing the natives in the process. Widespread global trade makes it easier than ever for a critter to hitch a ride in the ballast of a ship and invade the turf of unsuspecting plants and animals. Lionfish, a Pacific native introduced into Florida’s coastal waters in the 1980s by disenchanted pet owners, have descended on the state’s coral reefs, where they kill up to 74 percent of native species. The fish is now the second most prevalent in the Caribbean. Another invasive fish, the Asian carp, is laying waste to the food supply of Midwestern freshwater fish. The population is so abundant, you can watch them jump out of a river and hit a CNN anchor in the chest. All told, invasive species like these cost the U.S. economy $120 billion in damages each year, according to The Washington Post.
Lai is at the forefront of a culinary movement to combat this scourge by finding palatable ways to prepare invasive species and beating them through eating them. Kerry Heffernan, executive chef of the Manhattan restaurant South Gate, swears by the lionfish’s “firm white meat” and clean filets. Fisherman have to dive to spear it, and chefs must remove the lionfish’s spines before serving, lending it an exotic cache. (Asian carp’s boniness makes that fish more of a challenge to work with, but they make up for it with their massiveness).
The commercial market for lionfish and carp is tiny so far. Part of the problem is awareness, which led Food & Water Watch to publish a section on invasive species in this year’s Smart Seafood Guide for the first time ever. Another part is branding. Before Chilean sea bass was trendy to the point of overfishing, it was the dweeby Patagonian toothfish. While the sustainable food movement has its Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to alert conscious eaters about their environmental impact, invasive species eating hasn’t found its prophet yet. That doesn’t mean the issues is any less important than factory-farmed meat or pesticide-coated grapes. “Invasive species and climate change, they’re basically brothers,” Lai says.
What started off as a curiosity for Lai has become a cause and a core ingredient in his staple dishes. Lai forages for dead man’s fingers—an alien seaweed that competes with local flora for space—and uses it as the base for his miso soup, the most frequently ordered dish on Miya’s menu at $1.75 a bowl. “My mother, who’s from Japan, thinks it’s the best miso soup she’s had,” he says, which he attributes to the fingers’ distinct flavor.
Lai has always taken risks with his menu and offended purists in the process. His sushi rolls include everything from dried cranberries to olive oil to grits to mussels. His pricing invites diners of all incomes to enjoy themselves: an eight-piece curry okra roll costs $3.50, while a plate of “The Softest French Kisses”—five scallops drizzled in a sake-ginger sauce—costs $28.75. He infuses sake with sumac and writes on his menu that “it tastes a lot like Kool-Aid.”
But it wasn’t until 2004 that Lai started thinking about how his cooking could make a statement about sustainability in an industry infamous for overfishing, shipping seafood around the world, and “destroying our oceans,” as Miya’s website puts it. To the bewilderment of angry customers and sushi traditionalists, he cleansed his kitchen of environmentally harmful staples like tuna, eel, shrimp, and farmed salmon. He expanded his vegetarian offerings into what he calls “the largest vegetarian sushi menu in the world.” And he started harvesting and preparing local shellfish from a 100-acre fishery he maintains in Connecticut’s Thimble Islands.
But of all Lai’s ways of uniting food with environmental activism, his commitment to serving invasive species is the most radical. Now he serves a “surf-and-turf” that pairs jellyfish (whose population is currently exploding) with locally-raised rabbit meat.
“We also use Japanese knotweed,” one of the world’s most common invasive species, “which ironically I gave my mom as a gift for Mothers Day” before he knew what it was, says Lai. “It literally has roots that break through pavement, and it’s still growing in front of my mom’s house. It reminded me of Japan and of bamboo and I thought my mom would like it.” The menu includes a few ingredients meant as “absurdist jokes,” like BBQ swan, which he doesn’t actually serve. Lai calls swan a beautiful but “problematic species because it helps erode our marshlands which are so incredibly important for the existence of our fisheries.” He’d hunt them if it were allowed.
For Lai, food is a platform for education. He speaks regularly about invasive species and sustainable seafood, and leads educational worskshops with local children. In a video (see below) posted to his Tumblr, an 18-month child greedily chows down on Asian shore crabs. “Imagine if we can get all these kids liking it,” says Lai. “Imagine if one day kids are eating these Asian shore crabs out of a biodegradable plastic bag. That would be an amazing thing.” One diner told him that his Asian shore crabs tastes like Doritos. Lai thinks that’s great.