As commerce crisscrosses the globe, many harmful invasive species are enjoying an express ride into our ocean ecosystems. Some interlopers escape from the tropical fish trade. Others stow away in ships’ ballast water or hitch rides on fishing equipment. But once they arrive, it’s not easy to get them to leave.
Turns out, one tool for banishing them could be a pair of chopsticks.
At Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, Chef Bun Lai has taken the next step in his quest for sustainability: He’s tackling the party crashers of the sea by crafting inventive dishes from what’s available and abundant locally — and that includes plenty of invasive species.
"Being sustainable is about being aware that what you choose to eat has an impact on life on Earth."
How did you first develop your love of fish and the sea?
When I was little my father and mother would take me and my brother to Long Island Sound to fish and collect mussels and clams.
My mother showed us how to find and prepare different types of seaweed and taught me it should never be washed off in fresh water. Seaweed is rinsed in the ocean then gently dried under the sun to lock in all the flavors of the sea.
My brother and I enjoyed flipping over rocks to see what was living under them. There were always green crabs, sandworms, brine shrimp and steamers, occasionally a baby eel or a clam.
How did you get the idea for a menu based on invasive species?
Six years ago, my good friend Yancey Orr and I were collecting shellfish in Branford, Connecticut where I used to play. I flipped over a rock just as I did as a child, and more little crabs than I had ever seen scurried into hiding.
They were Asian shore crabs, which have pushed out other species and are practically the only shore crab you’ll find in Connecticut today.
I began to think about how serving invasive species could help curb their dominance in the ecosystem while also reducing the stress on more commonly served fish.
What’s your favorite invasive species in Connecticut to cook with?
It changes by the season. Asian shore crabs are one of the crown jewels of my menu. I catch thousands in early December when they molt and become soft shell and freeze them for winter use.
This spring, I’m looking forward to foraging and serving Japanese knotweed. Listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, knotweed crowds out other herbaceous species. But it’s also crunchy, juicy and tart — not unlike a granny smith apple — and it’s one of the best natural sources of resveratrol, which has been shown to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and blood-sugar-lowering benefits. I serve it freshly blanched, in a whole grain roll.
Beyond serving invasives, how does your approach at Miya’s Sushi differ from that of other restaurants?
At Miya's we don't use much of the seafood that is popular today. We don't use freshwater eel, which is critically endangered by overfishing, habitat loss and decades of pollution. We don't use imported farmed shrimp, much of which is responsible for the destruction of mangrove forests worldwide.
We also have a massive vegetarian sushi menu of all original recipes, which also helps to take pressure off of the oceans.
But it isn’t just about fish. We don't want to be sustainable in one way but not another. So we use only organic produce, compostable take-out containers and reusable metal chopsticks. And we have a “Sushi for the Masses” menu — our answer to the "Value Meal" — to show that sustainable and affordable are not mutually exclusive concepts.
What does sustainable seafood mean to you?
To me, sustainable seafood means choosing to purchase seafood that is caught or farmed in a way that is not harmful to the environment so that we continue to enjoy it in the future.
Every step of the way Miya’s has been helped by countless people and organizations like The Nature Conservancy that are working to protect the lands and waters that grow our food.
Being sustainable is about being aware that what you choose to eat has an impact on life on Earth. Food was once a living organism. It's important for us to be mindful and appreciative of that.
Kate Frazer is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy.