Bun Lai grinned like an excited teenager as a group of older women asked him about Sweet Mother’s Milk, an appetizer. Lai, the owner and celebrated head chef at Miya’s Sushi on Howe Street, was sitting across from me as I sipped from a bowl of earthy miso soup. On my right stood bottles of sake infusions and oils flavored with garlic gloves and chilis, which sent red and yellow hues dancing on the table below.
“It’s actually really great,” Lai said, getting up. “In some cultures, midwives actually breastfeed young babies, but when they’re done they usually still produce milk for a while. So what we do is have them harvest it, and we use that milk to make cheese.” A second of hushed silence passed. The women’s smiles started to drop. Bun went on, “Yeah, it’s really sustainable and socially conscious.”
I froze, and my mind raced to make sure that I’d heard him right. Before I could even start to think through the potential ethical implications of serving person-cheese, Lai’s straight face collapsed. “Nah, I’m just fucking with you—it’s artichoke heart,” he laughed, breaking out into a broad grin. I learned quickly that Lai has a particular sort of deadpan humor, like comedian Zach Galifinakis if Galifinakis were an athletic Asian-American sushi pioneer.
Raised in New Haven, Lai is the son of a Cambridge-educated surgeon and a Japanese nutritionist. In 1982, his mother, Yoshiko Lai, opened Miya’s, named for her daughter, as New Haven’s first sushi restaurant.
As Lai told me more about the restaurant’s history, I turned my attention to the miso soup and took another sip. Rich cubes of potatoes, buoyant mushrooms, and dark, silky seaweed balanced each mouthful of lightly salted broth. “I dove for that seaweed myself this weekend,” Lai said with noticeable pride. He harvests oysters and seaweed in one hundred acres of coastal water off the Thimble Islands in the Long Island Sound.
“Our kelp has more vitamin C than an orange and more protein than a steak,” he said. It was a brand-new recipe, and he was ordering each customer a bowl on the house. With each bowl, he’d say those exact words to the customer—I must have heard them at least a dozen times.
Under Lai’s mother, Miya’s was a traditional sushi bar, serving classic dishes with standard sushi ingredients—Bluefin tuna, shrimp, eel, sea urchin, and red snapper. When Lai took over, the dishes became more adventurous.
Now, the majority of Miya’s offerings are vegetarian, in large part due to the comparatively low ecological impact of eating plants. Miya’s advertises, even boasts, that it serves “the Northeast’s only sustainable sushi” in its sprawling and self-indulgent menu—a fifty-five-page dissertation on food, the environment, and Miya’s culture, filled with the exotic names of Lai’s rolls: Kilgore Trout, Romping with the Goats, the Bad Tempered Geisha Boy.
In my late teens, I became a vegetarian, but, like many others, I realized that I was actually pretty O.K. with eating fish. Save for a few surprisingly bright creatures like octopi and squid, the marine animals we eat are generally about as sentient as rocks, plants, or, more charitably, bugs. Compared to beef, their associated greenhouse gas emissions are low. But eating fish still raises other ethical and environmental concerns.
“I got interested in sustainability about eight years ago,” Lai told me, as he signaled to the servers to bring out a few dishes, “and shrimp was the one of the first things to go.” Shrimp accounts for only about two percent of the world’s seafood consumption, but nearly one-third of the bycatch. This unwanted fish caught in the same nets as the shrimp is discarded back into the ocean, usually dead or dying. For some shrimp trawl fisheries, bycatch accounts for as much as 90 percent of a given yield.
Shrimp farming also can devastate local ecosystems. Ecuador, a coastal republic in South America, has had nearly half a million acres of coastal mangrove rainforests cleared in order to support an industry that exports 95 percent of its shrimp to the United States. “For us to serve cheap shrimp, future Ecuadorians won’t have the freedom to make a living off of their natural resources. It’s a social justice issue,” Bun explained, as his servers brought out a massive slab of rock with a half-dozen rolls on top.
The Kanibaba Roll, 5 pieces, $25.75
The Kanibaba roll is soft-shelled crabmeat, wrapped in warm and savory potato, topped with lemon dill, a toasted Havarti cheese sauce, and a few strands of green onion. A handful of small, bright red crabs garnish the dish, as if climbing seaside rocks topped with seaweed.
“This used to have shrimp in it, and it was our most popular dish,” Lai told me. I looked suspiciously at the crab on top. “That’s an Asian shore crab I caught myself,” he said. “Eat it last.” I scanned his face for signs that he was joking, and couldn’t find any.
I decided to come back to the crab. I lifted it off the top and set it aside, then took a bite of the rich, cheesy potato roll. I felt as if I’d blacked out for a few seconds, then came to with a stupid grin on my face and an inexplicable craving for a cigarette. This wasn’t the type of roll you imagine when you hear “sustainable sushi.”
I took a look at the crab I set aside, and the bite I had left of my kanibaba. “Might as well,” I thought, as I placed the crab on top of the roll, and raised them both to my mouth with Miya’s sleek metal chopsticks. The shell and meat were brittle but delicious.
Asian shore crabs migrated to this continent in the ballast of freighters in the eighties, and have now taken up residence in beaches all along the Northeast coast. They’re a destructive invasive species. They eat the larvae and plankton on which local fish and shellfish subsist. With no natural predators to keep them in check, Asian shore crabs are quickly displacing native crab populations. Lai does his part by using them in his dishes. “I’ll have to take you out to catch them, sometime,” he told me.
Not long after my meal at Miya’s, Lai and I met up with a friend of his, Will Reynolds, as we made our way to Silver Sands Beach in Milford, Connecticut. Reynolds, a charismatic filmmaker who recently moved to New Haven, met Lai at Miya’s. “He took me under his wing,” Reynolds said. The two belted Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” as we arrived. I’m at the Pizza Hut. We grabbed a large white bucket from the back of Bun’s car—I’m at the Taco Bell—and made our way to the craggy rocks on the cold, late-November sand. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Lai’s method for hunting Asian shore crabs is simple. He turns over rocks on the beach, hoping he’ll find the crabs hiding underneath. We flipped over seven rocks without much luck, startling one or two crabs the size of quarters that tried to scuttle away. Lai, Reynolds, and I picked them up and threw them in the bucket. Soon we hit our stride.
“Look under rocks that are big, flat, and not too deep. They need room to get under there,” Lai said. We found one that looked good—it took both Lai and me to flip—and heard Reynolds shout in surprise. A mass of about two dozen writhing crabs scurried for cover or played dead. We laughed and grabbed them by the handful.
After about an hour our fingers were frozen, but we had a bucket full of crabs. It crackled like a bowl of Rice Krispies. “This will last us a while,” Bun laughed, as we made our way back to Miya’s, where the crabs would be boiled, seasoned, and served.
Sakura Sashimi, 5 slices, $18.75
Thin slices of light pink tilapia are treated with sea salt and lime and infused with beet pulp, staining the edges a deep purple. Inspired by Inuit tradition, Lai has frozen the slices of fish, curling up the edges. Five of the large slices are arranged on a plate in a circle, like the petals of a large flower. They taste as delicious as they look. The frozen fish melts in my mouth.
More unexpectedly, the tilapia used in the dish is from the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center, a vocational high school more than twenty miles from Miya’s. Deep within the expansive coastal campus, John Curtis, the school’s director, gave Lai and me a tour of the hatchery. Lai and Curtis laughed like old friends—Lai laughs with everyone like old friends—as I looked into the wide, white tanks that circled the room. Inside the tanks were gray fish the size of my calf, swimming in green and salty water. Students at the school hatch, raise, and sell the fish, working sustainably at every step. “I’ll buy anything these guys will sell me,” Lai says, laughing.
To Lai, knowing where fish comes from is hugely important. “We used to get our seafood from a Japanese company and we had no idea where it came from. You shouldn’t be able to walk into a sushi restaurant and ask them where their fish comes from, and get back an ‘I don’t know.’ ”
“There has to be traceability in seafood,” he said later. “I’d like to see a shift to treating fish and seafood a lot like wine: there should be policy enforcing origin.”
Ariana Bain, a sustainability consultant and graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, helps Lai ensure supply lines are traceable. “Working with Bun is hilarious,” she said. “I’m a very sort of rational, logical person. I’m involved in the back-end operations because Bun knows it’s something he’s not really strong at.”
“Everything’s always fluid with Bun, because he’s an artist,” she told me.
Kiribati Sashimi, 10 slices, $12.75
Lai’s activism stretches further than limiting his own ecological impact. He also strives to raise awareness about the damage unsound choices make to humans. A server brought out our last dish, Kiribati sashimi. A dozen or so thin, pink slices of fish were sprinkled with brown, red, and black spices and arranged like a large flower on the center of a small plate. The perimeter slices lay like petals, with a few pieces rolled tightly in the center, standing up and spiraling out like a rose bud.
“Kiribati is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean only a dozen feet or so above sea level. Scientists estimate that it will be under water in the next fifty years,” Lai told me as I put a slice of the soft and salty meat on my tongue. The tangy salt used in the dish was imported from Kiribati, “their only natural resource,” Lai said. “We designed the spices to simultaneously warm and cool your palette. It’s a metaphor for climate change.”
Lai and I finished our drinks late in the evening, long after it grew dark and nearly four hours after I’d arrived. I stood up to thank Bun for his hospitality. He hugged me good-bye and said, “I’ll see you around, brother!” I left Miya’s with a stomach full of warm sake, cheap beer, and seafood that I had enjoyed with a clean conscience. As I was leaving, I looked back and saw the restaurant’s logo in the large window: “Because man cannot live on rice alone.”
I smiled, knowing that at Miya’s, man didn’t have to.