Blue fin tuna, wild freshwater eel, and other sushi ingredients are in steep decline due to the popularity as people around the world demand this Japanese cuisine.
Restaurant owner and sushi chef Bun Lai says the ancient tradition of sushi must evolve and become sustainable if it is to survive.
On a frosty winter night earlier this year, chef Bun and his team were at the New England Aquarium in Boston. They peeled tin foil from giant platters, revealing hundreds of pieces of sushi, that range in color from neon green to fiery red. Chef Bun was delivering a lecture on sustainable sushi and brought along tasty tidbits to illustrate it.
"I brought five different types of rolls, two vegetable rolls. We’ve got catfish with okra and African spices; squid, squid ink, and broccoli; mussels from New Zealand; broccoli, roasted garlic and Chinese blackbean; sweet potato with kudzu dust and fire ants," he told the assembled people.
Of course, Bun isn’t really serving kudzu dust and fire ants, but eating invasive species is part of his message.
Thirty years ago, Bun’s mother started her sushi restaurant, Miya’s, in New Haven, Conn. As a teenager, Bun joined his mother in the kitchen. The restaurant started as your average, traditional sort of sushi joint.
Not any more.
"The reason we stopped serving tuna, shrimp, and a slew of other popular sushi ingredients that everyone expects today, is to be able to show people and to challenge ourselves to see if we can thrive as a business without using those ingredients that are so incredibly destructive," he said.
Miya’s menu now features invasive species, such as lion fish and shore crabs, and eight pages of vegetarian sushi. And Bun connects with scientists and organizations like the New England Aquarium to deliver sustainable food.
At the Aquarium, about 50 people — grandfathers, college students, even toddlers — turned out for Bun and his innovative sushi. Bun’s, in his early forties, dressed in jeans and a black shirt — not the look of the stern, sushi master. He slips in jokes in a deadpan tone; if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss his humor.
"The first thing you should try is the Asian shore crab. You just kind of eat it with your fingers, it’s all finger food here and hopefully it doesn’t bite your tongue," he said. "If it does, it’s never broken skin, I’ll assure you."
Everyone seems to like it.
After the lecture, people stick around to talk with Bun, and to score a few more pieces of sushi.
"The sushi was absolutely delicious and I was really excited to hear Bun talk, he’s an inspiration," one high school student said. "It’s really great to have a role model like Bun."
The kids were probably least intimidated by Bun’s strange ingredients. And the message of eating invasive species hit home.
Bun knows his unusual version of this very popular cuisine isn’t for everyone.
"Throughout my career, it’s been a situation where often people will walk out because we hadn’t been carrying tuna or shrimp or freshwater eel — the most popular sushi ingredients," he said. "But food has been evolving since the beginning of time. In the origins of sushi, when it first started out thousands of years ago, most of the popular ingredients that we eat today and think of as sushi weren’t considered ingredients for sushi anyway."
Bun and a handful of other sushi masters are helping that evolution along. He hopes that people leave his lecture not only with a full stomach, but also determined to eat only sustainable sushi.