This story is a part of OnEarth's Invasive Species Week.
So I’m at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, seated across from food historian Paul Freedman, chair of the history of science program at Yale. In front of us sit two bowls of miso soup, thick with puréed pumpkin, acorn squash, and, uh, “dead man’s fingers.”
“Wonderful…complicated,” says Freedman, slurping the broth. He looks up at Bun Lai, chef and proprietor, hoping for an explanation.
Wearing board shorts with neon-yellow trim and matching sneakers, Lai effusively describes his special ingredient—a breed of invasive seaweed that spreads, in quick succession, from Japan to Norway to New York Harbor. With thick, spongy fingers, it is difficult to eat: too thick to sauté, too tough to nosh on raw. But puréed, it provides what Lai calls “natural umami.” It’s a perfect ingredient for a menu whose mission, in part, is to utilize invasive species as key ingredients.
Lai’s culinary experiment began more than a decade ago, during an afternoon spent foraging on New Haven’s stony shores, the same place he spent summer afternoons as a child. He turned over a rock, searching for steamers or shrimp, and to his surprise, a stream of tiny Asian shore crabs scuttled out. So many, he recalls, that it seemed like the sand was moving. “I grew up flipping rocks…so I knew those didn’t exist when I was little,” says Lai, who spent that evening Googling and encountered, for the first time, the term “invasive species.”
Miya’s has always had a reputation for serving ingredients that walk (sometimes literally) a little on the wild side, breaking the mold of Japanese refinement. (When I briefly lived next door, my favorite dish was the Hot Headed Cowgirl roll: papaya, hot peppers, and cream cheese rimmed with coconut and wrapped in seaweed.) But in recent years, Lai’s evolving food philosophy has commanded center stage. His manifesto on eating invasive species ran in Scientific American last summer, and he’s currently pitching a television show that would take him around the world, eating edible species found in places where they normally don’t belong and do damage to the native ecosystem.
This shift to, let’s call it philosophical eating, hasn’t been unanimously popular with more conservative diners. “I associate it with my first memories of people walking out,” Lai says. As if on cue, a young couple a few tables over heads for the door after looking over the menu. “They didn’t see California rolls,” jokes Freedman. Lai gives a feeble grin: “In case you can’t tell, I’m not really a businessman.”
But then, a few moments later, comes a bit of validation. “Oh my goodness, that is beautiful,” exclaims a diner, who leans in toward her dish with an iPhone as soon as Lai sets it down “Can I Instagram that?”
She’s transfixed by Lai’s version of his first invasive recipe. Chefs generally find Asian shore crab, which possesses a watertight shell and scant meat, difficult to cook. At Miya’s, Lai gets around the problem by deep-frying them whole, so they resemble an oddly shaped French fry. They’re served mounted on a roll of potato-wrapped blue-crab meat and cow’s-milk cheese smothered in a dill sauce. Seaweed finishes the plate, which looks more like a triumphant diorama than a meal.
Placing invasive species on the dinner menu seems like a simple, primal way of solving a serious ecological issue. But the task also requires changing minds (of diners, primarily): Louisiana chefs, for instance, have struggled to overcome customers’ disgust when they serve nutria, the destructive aquatic rodent. And it requires changes to the larger food supply chain—earlier this year, Illinois’s American Heartland Fish Products opened a special plant to process the notoriously bony carcasses of the invasive Asian carp, a serious threat to the region’s waterways.
Already struggling with tight profit margins, restaurants seldom devote themselves so enthusiastically to the cause as Miya’s. Yet, dining on our ecological enemies can have a significant impact. In April, Jamaica’s central environmental agency announced a 66 percent drop in sightings of the lionfish, which had overwhelmed ocean ecosystems with its aggressive eating, after a four-year campaign to teach fisherman how to catch them and remove their venomous spines. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advertised the subtle flavor to U.S. realtors and distributors with the aptly named campaign “Eat Lionfish." Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and founder of EattheInvaders.org, which offers recipes and foraging tips, saw the effects of a similar campaign in Cuba on a return trip earlier this year. A coastal area teeming with lionfish had been emptied of them. “If we do our job right,” says Roman, “we consume lionfish to the point where they’re not going to have a large ecological role.”
At Miya’s, lionfish is served in thin raw strips neatly submerged in lime juice and dotted with hot oil and crushed peppers. The dish is a feat of mixed metaphor: In Lai’s mind the heat of spice symbolizes the effects of climate change. And the dish is arranged in small circular mounds to resemble Kiribati, an island nation near Australia where lionfish are indigenous but where the land is sinking due to rising sea levels. It’s a top-shelf predator, made into a piece of edible performance art.
For a moment, mouths full of soft lionfish flesh, Freedman and I are silent. I ask Lai how he thinks up such complex dishes out of animals and ingredients with such a limited culinary history. “It’s kind of like how a musician writes songs,” he answers. “Sometimes the lyrics come, sometimes the music comes, and sometimes it’s all at once.”
After a sip of sumac-laced sake, Freedman tells me his latest research traces the rise of the celebrity chef. “The restaurant in the modern world changes what chefs are,” he says. “The restaurant gives chefs a public life.”
And while Lai isn’t a celebrity chef yet, at least not by Food Network standards, it’s that public life that may allow Miya’s dishes to resonate beyond the culinary corridors of sleepy Connecticut. One restaurant can’t change the ecological balance of species in our oceans, but, collectively, Lai believes, we can literally eat invaders out of existence. “We’ve proven that throughout history,” he says. “We ate away the passenger pigeon. We ate away the dodo bird. We’re almost eating away the blue fin population today.”
We just need a change in the way we eat—a new marketing campaign—and Lai sees himself as a catalyst. “If rock stars and movie stars started ordering lionfish all the time and tweeting about it and posting it on Instagram, there would be this incredible demand for them,” says Lai. “It just needs a bump in the cool factor.”
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