Japanese food in Connecticut? You betcha. Miya’s Sushi has been a mainstay in New Haven since 1982. Asian carp and Japanese knotweed might not be what sushi lovers would associate with rolls, but these ingredients have a place at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut. These nontraditional fixings are included on an invasive species (non-native plants and animals) menu that has been served at this three decade, family-owned eatery since the mid-2000s.
According to Chef and Owner Bun Lai, it’s been well received with patrons; however, this alternative meal offering displays Miya’s focus on being an ecologically-minded sushi restaurant – and being touted as the first sustainable one of its kind.
“When using invasive species, you’re talking about an abundant species,” explains Lai, “They’re wild; they’re not farmed. They’re destructive of our environment. If you eat them up, you can literally help balance out that eco-system again.”
At Miya’s Sushi, invasive species are incorporated into sushi rolls and other dishes.
As an early innovator in sustainable dining, Miya’s Sushi has stayed a fixture in downtown New Haven since being opened in 1982. Much of its green-minded philosophy is due to the Lai family. Lai’s mother — who named her restaurant after her daughter — balanced both running the kitchen and cooking for her three children, all of which had a part in helping out with the family business.
Now with Lai being more of the spokesperson for Miya’s Sushi with his mom still overseeing the operation, Lai says that his mother’s, and now restaurant’s, cooking relates to how he and his siblings were raised. And what they ate.
“My mom was a nutritionist, so we were very cognizant of the importance of eating a lot of vegetables and fruit,” remembers Lai. Both her and her husband, a scientist, are gardeners, and, according to Lai, the family ate what they grew far before the term “farm to table” was coined.
Even as a plant-based diet has earned acknowledgment for its personal health benefits and ecological purpose, Miya’s had been dishing out this kind of menu for decades. For that reason they don’t carry any sort of livestock on their menu – and for the reason they think it’s inhumane.
This innovative and seasonal tilapia dish includes frozen salt water.
Creativity In The Kitchen
The menu has also been innovative. In the mid-nineties, Miya’s introduced what is credited as the creation of a sweet potato roll alongside other vegetarian-minded options. Even with fish being an essential part in sushi, Miya’s technique implements sustainable seafood measures. Fish choices have featured pole caught Albacore tuna from Washington and wild salmon – based on availability – but even nontraditional ingredients like Chesapeake Bay crabmeat. And although Miya’s take may turn away some customers, the restaurant earns and retains patrons.
“We’ve got people with really open minds that will pack the place, and it’s not because of tuna,” adds Lai.
The miso soup at Miya’s Sushi gets upped with fall vegetables.
For starters, miso soup gets an autumn flavor with additions of slow-roasted pumpkin, sweet potato, and acorn squash with locally foraged seaweed. With tempura, the Tempura Weed Chee consists of the leaves of a Japanese Knotweed plant are kimchee-pickled and then fried in a whole wheat batter (a gluten free version with garbanzo flour is available).
“We literally use our set menus as a way of not only creating fun and delicious experiences but also thoughtful experiences for people,” says Lai.
In the kitchen, Lai has been preparing the next set of chefs who will be carrying on its legacy. “It’s a full U.N. in there,” he says about the nationalities of the restaurant’s original staff: Puerto Rican, Mexican and Afghan.
Miya’s Sushi has indoor and outdoor seating.
Publicly Lai brings attention not just to his family’s restaurant but also culinary-related causes such as environmental pollution. Both a 2013 James Beard Foundation nominated chef and a 2011 Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Ambassador Award recipient, Lai has spoken at venues including Yale and Harvard on how everything from nutritional concerns to climate change and even social justice for farmers and day laborers can impact food supplies.
Also a former director of nutrition for a nonprofit working with low-income pre-diabetics, Lai says that it’s important to ask questions about what is happening to our food. What Miya’s does is add to the conversation.
By Michele Herrmann