Can restaurants reinvent “sustainable sushi”?

Eventually, Miya’s became known for turning destructive into delicious. Lai wrapped these shore crabs in crispy potato skin rolls topped with melty local Gouda cheese, herbaceous mugwort folded in steamed rice, and even smoked grasshoppers to garnish the kale salads with an unexpected crunch. His family leased shellfish fishing grounds in the Long Island Sound and bought a nearby 10-acre farm to grow vegetables, while letting wild plants bloom for foraging. Lai even received the White House Champions of Change award in 2016 for his efforts.

At the end of 2020, Lai closed the restaurant to focus on a new era. “My restaurant life had become hypocritical and unhealthy,” he says. He drank and smoked late at night to cope with the stress and responsibilities of running a restaurant. “While I was obsessed with sustainability, I wasn’t living in a sustainable way.”

Now, Lai invites her friends and followers to Miya’s In The Woods, an alfresco dinner showcasing all the subversive seasonal ingredients that are capturing her attention right now. He also offered “Sustainable Sushi Master Classes” that taught Japanese tenkara fly fishing, weed hunting, and sushi techniques.

Lai sees invasive species as the next frontier in the food industry, like fair trade coffee and farm-to-table meals before her. And although the supply of invasive species from major restaurant distributors is limited, Lai believes the industry is poised to grow.

If seafood is to follow in the footsteps of meat, a question inevitably arises: what is the Impossible Burger of sushi? On the Hulu show The next thing you eatMomofuku Chief David Chang and former lucky peach editor Chris Ying visits the San Francisco offices of start-up Wildtype, a company that creates cell-cultured seafood by growing cells from live fish in large tanks. They try a piece of cell-cultured coho salmon nigiri. “Delicious,” Chang said as he chewed. “You read about it and you’re like, one day.” Ying replies, “I didn’t know it was today.”

Wildtype is still gearing up for market, but there are at least a dozen other start-ups developing plant- or cell-based seafood around the world. There are undeniably energy costs to run these high-tech labs, but that hasn’t deterred some investors. BlueNalu, a San Diego-based company aiming to introduce cell-cultured seafood like mahi-mahi, raised $60 million last year.

For some restaurants, the future is already here. Lucky Robot now uses Good Catch’s legume-based tuna in a spicy tuna maki designed to tempt vegans and omnivores. The texture is closer to flaky canned fish than smooth slices of nigiri, but Huang says it works for spicy tuna rolls, which usually contain minced fish. Plus, that all-important spicy mayo goes a long way.

Then, of course, there’s the old-fashioned version of “plant-based.” Bun Lai used to top a sushi buffet with salty Chinese refried beans and fried marinated artichoke hearts. Silky eggplant is a popular Japanese substitute for grilled eel. Lucky Robot’s Pan-Seared Mushroom Nigiri is delicious on its own.

It’s impossible to say whether the sushi bars of the future will offer mushrooms, lionfish, cell-cultured salmon, or all of the above. But hybrid menus like this could be the key to unlocking a more sustainable future.

“I think humanity will have to move away from eating animals,” says Pauly, “and it will be driven by two things: animals will become rare and expensive, and we will develop tasty substitutes.”

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