One Restaurant's Deadliest Catch

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Miya's restaurant is serving invasive species from our waters because they're available, delicious and making way for other seafood.
By Amanda Baltazar January 2012 Philanthropy

Our seafood is in trouble. Overfishing, pollution and invasive species are making the fish we love to eat more rare every year.

Bun Lai, owner of Miya’s restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, may have found a simple yet effective solution: Serve up the invasive species for dinner.

On the menu: Asian shore crabs, lionfish, Asian silver and big head carp, and wild seaweeds (invasive dead man’s fingers/codium fragile).

Lai speaks to Rmgt about his venture.

What made you think of serving invasive species?

One warm summer day, years ago, I was flipping rocks along the seashore with a pal [and] we discovered all these little crabs that we had never seen before. We found out later that they were an invasive species of crab, Asian shore crabs, that came over to the East Coast in the late 1980s. 

My invasive crab recipe, Kanibaba, has become one of our most popular dishes.

The cuisine of sushi, in its constant search for the exotic ingredients, has been sucking the life out of the oceans. Sushi chefs need to turn their attention away from types of seafood that are caught or farmed in a way that is destructive, to unconventional species that are abundant and ecologically problematic.

How did you find out what was safe to eat?

Many of the invasive species that I use are not eaten here in the U.S. but are enjoyed elsewhere. I draw inspiration from other cultures that eat in ways that are healthier than we do. I also regularly work with experts such as marine and fisheries scientists.

Are you constantly introducing new invasive species?

Yes. Tomorrow Miya's will be receiving a delivery of one of the most ecologically destructive invasive species in the ocean—the lionfish!

Like the puffer fish, which is prized as sushi in Japan, venomous needles that protrude from its body protect the delicate and supple white flesh of the lionfish. Its dangerous skin is peeled like a banana. I can't wait to work with it!

Is your fish local?

We don’t believe in using only local fish. We are consistently redefining and exploring what are our more sustainable options for purchasing food. Sourcing locally is one dimension of that puzzle: It allows us to have a personal relationship with the fishermen or fish farmer. That said, I serve plenty of seafood from far away because these are some of the most responsibly farmed or fished types of seafood.

How do the invasive species taste? Do you have any personal favorites?

Asian shore crabs taste like a cross between a blue crab and Doritos. The Asian silver carp is a buttery fish that contains more omega 3 fatty acids than salmon. I think it is the tastiest of all freshwater fish.

There are species that I have worked with that have been less successful. The stalked tunicate is an invasive fouling organism here but a delicacy in Korea. We have eaten it but it looks like a small penis and squirts into your mouth when you bite into it. This is an example of a challenging ingredient.

The Japanese knotweed is my favorite. Listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, knotweed is crunchy, juicy and tart—not unlike a Granny Smith apple. It’s also one of the best natural sources of resveratrol, which has been shown to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and blood-sugar-lowering benefits.

How have you incorporated these invasive species into your sushi?

My work is to reinvent the cuisine of sushi within the framework of social and ecological responsibility. The biggest challenge for me has been to translate unusual ingredients into recipes that would be enjoyed by my audience.

I strive to have my sushi become as American as apple pie, without all the sugar and chemicals. I have created recipes for non-conventional ingredients that people want to come back for, time and time again. I’m not interested in creating sensational or trendy food. Apple pie is my mantra.

How do you source the invasive species?

I am fortunate to have a couple of boats, a hundred acres of certified shell fishing grounds, and a staff that is scuba certified to go fish and forage for invasive species for our restaurant. I haven't found reliable sources for invasive species because I don't think a market has been created for them yet.

Do you expect this to catch on—will other chefs be serving up these species soon or will we see them in cases at the grocery store?

Yes, yes—I am sure they will. We have not yet begun to fight!