Find out how Bun Lai makes healthy sushi that's sustainable and affordable and how you can too.

Find out how Bun Lai makes healthy sushi that's sustainable and affordable and how you can too.

One night a few months ago, Paul Freedman, Yale professor and editor of the award-winning tome Food: The History of Taste, was given the somewhat daunting task of taking René Redzepi out to dinner. Freedman led the man behind Copenhagen's renowned Noma-named the world's best restaurant in 2010, 2011 and 2012-down the back streets of New Haven, Connecticut, to a nondescript sushi restaurant called Miya's.

It was a busy night, with students lining up at the door. Inside, the two rooms were packed with mismatched chairs, tables and dinnerware recycled or salvaged from Goodwill. Latino chefs screamed out orders behind the sushi bar. Proprietor Bun Lai, built like a wrestler (which he is) and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, bounded between tables greeting diners with his impish smile. It could have been a scene at any college-town restaurant except for just one thing: the mind-blowing oversized, 50-page menu.

More than a list of dishes, the menu is a vision statement on sustainability, channeling the nutty, brilliant, socially conscious, multicultural and often absurdly funny concepts that ricochet through Bun Lai's brain. It starts like this:

"Cherokee Sumac Love Potion: Honey sweetened wild sumac sake, made from furry staghorn sumac... forage[d] from my friend's farm.

"Dragon Lady: Victory drink of lesbian Chinese pirates of the South China Seas. Also popular with sorority girls everywhere!

"Ultraviolet Kisses: designed to taste like the has the same salinity as the South China Seas. Since the Industrial Revolution the oceans have seen a 30% increase of acidity due to human activity. To raise awareness of this alarming problem we have made Ultraviolet Kisses to have a pH of 8.179, the pre-industrial acidity level of the world's oceans."

And those are just the drinks. There are appetizers like Peanut Butter and Jelly-made with real jellyfish-and Tokyo Fro: "This recipe is inspired by the afro; it looks and tastes exactly like a Japanese processed fro!" The menu continues with a wide variety of sushi rolls with incongruous ingredients, such as Tyger Tyger made with tempura tilapia, capelin roe, apricots, goat cheese, pickled radish and African berbere spice. And it ends with an invasive-species menu that includes Wild Swan & Kudzu and Japanese Knotweed Rolls.

"I wanted Bun to present something to these Danish guys that would be local but a little wild and experimental," Freedman says. Redzepi, 34, is also known for wild and experimental-musk ox and hay are featured ingredients at his starkly elegant, high-end restaurant-and for adding flavors, textures and aromas few can imagine. Redzepi ate it up.

By now, Bun Lai is used to high-profile guests. But it's not celebrities or even foodies that Lai is cooking for. "I want to make sushi everyone can eat," he says, getting quiet and serious. "Sushi that could be the most affordable, healthy and sustainable food in the world. But right now, here in America, it's not."

"Pink slime sushi" is what Lai calls the popular California roll. "It's hardly food at all but faux crab made up of fishes of mysterious origin, which are processed with sugar, flour, egg and dyed to look like king crab."

When Lai was a boy, he moved to the outskirts of New Haven with his father, Dr. Yin Lok Lai, a Chinese surgeon, and his mother, Yoshiko, a Japanese nutritionist. She taught Lai to forage for burdock and other wild foods, explaining their health values and teaching her son how to cook. It was Yoshiko who first opened Miya's in 1982, with an eye toward healthful sushi.

But when Lai took it over, he upped the ante, and added his own flair. His sushi rolls, far from the ubiquitous sticky-sweet white-rice rolls, are crunchy bites of goodness made with brown rice and quinoa, peppered with oat grains, chia, flaxseeds, amaranth and other whole grains. In addition to seaweed, Lai uses dark leafy greens, such as chard, as the outer wraps for his rolls. The soy sauce, though served in recycled Kikkoman bottles, is his take on ponzu, a low-sodium citrusy blend that adds a light tang to whatever it touches. The pickled ginger is homemade, too, without the pink dye, thank you, and sweetened with local maple syrup.

Perhaps the ingredients most noticeably lacking from the menu are the classic fish. "Over the years, I keep taking different fish off the menu as they become less and less sustainable; first tuna, then farmed salmon and this year shrimp," says Lai, who received the 2011 Seafood Ambassador Award from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "In a world where there are over a billion people starving it's unfair to be feeding 10 or 20 pounds of sardines and anchovies to make one pound of tuna for wealthy people," he notes.

Instead, he uses sustainable Arctic char or wild Alaskan salmon, smoked mussels, oysters and other mollusks, and invasive Asian crabs. Miya's tilapia is grown in closed tanks by schoolchildren in an inner-city aquaculture program in neighboring Bridgeport, and much of the seafood Lai harvests himself from 60 acres of fishing grounds he leases off Connecticut's Thimble Islands.

On a brilliant day, Bun Lai and his fishery partner Brendan Smith chug across placid Long Island Sound.

"I've seen how commercial fishing can damage an ecosystem if it's not done right," says Smith, who dropped out of school at 14 to become an offshore fisherman. He gave it up, managed to put himself through Cornell Law School, but could not stay away from the sea. "I've watched so many fisheries disappear," he says as he glances over the bow of the boat. It's not just overfishing that worries him: "Even 10 years ago, this place was teeming with lobsters. The water's too warm for them here now."

Now that Smith is back, he is trying to "do it right." Today, he and Lai will haul back oysters, mussels and clams harvested from beds that actually help clean the water. Some will be sold as shares in their CSF (Community Supported Fishery). Others, along with seaweed and invasive species, such as Asian crabs, Lai will use on his menu tonight.

It's a menu for the future, a menu Bun Lai calls "my love letter to humanity."

Teriyaki-Mussel Maki Rolls »
Try making this sushi recipe once and you'll see how easy it is to make maki sushi rolls at home. In this sushi roll recipe, inspired by chef Bun Lai, we use teriyaki-style glazed mussels, plus plenty of crunchy vegetables and even fruit. Vary the ingredients in the roll to suit your own taste. Serve with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy dipping sauce on the side.

Seared Arctic Char Hand Rolls »
This sushi recipe, a version of a hand roll inspired by chef Bun Lai's creative sushi recipes, uses blanched Swiss chard instead of the traditional nori as the wrapper for the sushi roll.

July/August 2012