Bun Lai, sushi guru and owner of Miya’s Sushi on Howe Street, brought samples of sustainable sushi for students to savor during a talk about his past, his restaurant and the world of “eco-friendly sushi” at a Calhoun Master’s Tea he gave Monday.
In conjunction with the Calhoun Master’s Office, the Yale Sustainable Food Project sponsored the talk with Lai, owner of the popular New Haven restaurant. Lai explained the stories behind his unusual sushi recipes, the names of bizarrely titled sushi rolls and the reasoning behind his business’s sustainable practices.
Lai travels around the world to find ideas for his sushi. For his next project, Lai said, he plans to spend time with moonshiners — people who brew homemade liquor — in Appalachia to garner inspiration for his next line of sake. He would also like to visit Buddhist monasteries in India and Japan where the monks eat exlusively vegetarian diets, to expand Miya’s vegetarian menu, which is already very extensive, he said.
But Lai said he is putting his travel plans on hold because he is currently scheduled as a contestant in the upcoming season of the Food Network television show “Chopped.”
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Lai names his sushi dishes, many of which contain ingredients not found in traditional sushi, after his personal experiences. For example, he made a dish that featured mussels for his homosexual friend, dedicating it to “men who love big muscles.”
Lai gave each student who attended the talk a box of sushi with samples of dishes such as the “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, in the Forest” which is named after the William Blake poem “The Tyger” and includes 12 spices from West Africa. Lai said the poem led him to ponder deeper questions about life, one of which was, “Why did sushi originate in Asia?” He said he tried to answer the question through a new dish that incorporated elements of West African culture and proved that sushi could be universal.
Another roll, “The Catfish Blues,” uses catfish, which Lai said is a cheaper and more abundant alternative to fishes like salmon that are commonly used in sushi. Lai said eating salmon is not at all sustainable due to the high position of salmon in the food chain.
“It’s like eating a lion,” he said. “It simply does not make sense.”
Catfish is also affordable, a big concern of Lai’s. Lai said he believes that in a culture where fast food is so inexpensive, sustainable, nutritious food should also be affordable. Miya’s prices are very diverse, he added: Customers can get eight California rolls for $2.75, while a more ambitious dish like “The Softest French Kisses,” scallop sashimi, costs $44.75 for 10 slices.
Lai said he is working on a dish that includes jellyfish because global warming has caused a spike in the population. The dish is still in progress, he said, because he has not yet figured out how to make the ingredients appealing.
“A dish cannot just be about sensationalism,” he said. “It first and foremost needs to be delicious.”
Daniel MacPhee, resident fellow of Calhoun College and the farm manager and educator with the Yale Sustainable Food Project, proposed bringing Lai to speak. MacPhee said he and others at the farm work with Lai frequently because their goals coincide — MacPhee said she is interested in getting rid of invasive species, and Lai is interested in making these invasive species edible.
“Conversations that combine sustainability and practicality are crucial for the Yale community,” MacPhee said.
Juliana Zhou ’11 enjoyed Lai’s talk because it gave a new twist to sustainability by combining the issue with food from one of her favorite restaurants.
Lai has won an Elm-Ivy award, a Yale award to honor New Haven community members. Miya’s also won “Best Sushi Statewide” in 2009 in a Connecticut Magazine readers’ poll, and was named one of the top 10 most sustainable restaurants in America in the 2010 documentary “The End of the Line.”
Correction: October 19, 2010
An earlier version of this article misstated Daniel MacPhee’s position and misspelled his name. MacPhee is a resident fellow of Calhoun College and the farm manager and educator with the Yale Sustainable Food Project.