The world is full of invasive species. The Nature Conservancy estimates invasive species cause $1.4 trillion in damages, 5% of the global economy. Here in the U.S., almost half the species on the threatened or endangered species list face their primary threat from the 50,000 alien-invasive species that have made their home here.
Many methods have failed to curtail the spread of invasive species. The most powerful weapon may be to put them on the menu.
Sushi provocateur Bun Lai has made a deadly one with the “Invasive Species Menu” at this New Haven, CT restaurant, Miya’s. The restaurant’s 60-page menu is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of what we have come to think of as sustainable for dinner: "Our challenge is not to import an exotic cuisine from afar but to use seafood that is locally available and to transform it into a regional cuisine that we can all be proud of," writes Lai. "These invasive species are a vast untapped resource for eating. Just because there isn’t an existing market for these species doesn’t mean they aren’t edible or can’t be delicious; therefore, we have focused on creating a part of our menu that will involve the gathering and eating of invasive species now found in local Connecticut waters."
A small sampling makes the mouth water, and an ecologist shudder. You can choose from Pollo Frito Shore Crabs, "an invasive species of crab that came over on the ballasts of ships in the 1980s and competes with other shellfish. In a fried chicken flavored batter"; Sargasso Chips, "red algae came over on the ballast of ships, competes with native species, and crowds out sunlight. Seasoned with olive oil, spicy native honey, lemon salt and sesame seeds then perfectly baked into crispy chips"; and the Naughty Norwegian, "moon snails are considered pests by local fisherman and are a by-catch of lobstering … They are considered a delicacy and a natural Viagra in Norway. Grilled with lime juice and a splash of Chinese Firecracker sake soy."
Whether or not harvesting invasive species will return our native ecology to its original state is beside the point. Lai, in his small corner of the world, has successfully turned modern dining into a deeper connection with the natural world where his menus actually originate. And he does not shy away from making sometimes unsettling descriptions of all the ingredients that make it, as if by magic, into the tasty dishes on his tables.
The food has gained a reputation as some of the most innovative and delicious sushi around New Haven, and even the Northeast. Yelp’s citizen reviewers have awarded it four stars and mostly gushing accolades. They seem to be listening to Lai, who writes: It is essential to approach food with naiveté and without expectations or judgment.