In Food Republic’s new series Game Changers, we take a close look at the individuals working to change the way we view the food industry. Next up is innovative chef and food activist Bun Lai.
If you can’t beat them, eat them. At least, in the world of Bun Lai, that’s the perfect solution to the problem of invasive species.
“Invasive species are a top-five ecological problem, with climate change being the biggest,” says Lai, chef and owner of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut. “When you talk about eating invasive species you are helping restore balance to the environments that were thrown off kilter by them.”
It was the penny-sized Asian Shore Crab that first garnered the interest of the 45-year-old as he foraged along the shore near New Haven in 2001. Coming all the way from the western Pacific Ocean, this tiny crab had been reeking havoc on the native species in the area. And, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s just one of the approximately 4,300 documented invasive species in the country.
For Lai, the former cooking and nutrition director at New Haven Farms, just killing the invading creatures wasn’t the solution. Instead, he thought the best way to cull the population, while doing something positive, was to hunt, fish, catch and then eat the creatures. Not that he wanted to kill a beautiful python or eat a worm, but for him as a chef and food activist, it was important to be part of the whole process. In fact, he is so involved with the fight to eradicate invasive species that come next year, the chef, writer and spokesman is showcasing this work in his own television series all about finding and consuming these animals. He hopes this will trigger more interest and that soon, everyone will be eating them.
“Our appetite has the power to wipe out a species,” says Lai. “In fact, we have already eaten away many different spices in the last several hundred years.” And, with that in mind, the chef shares four dishes that incorporate the problem fish, reptiles, mammals and even insects. The only thing missing is dessert.
Four-Course Invasive Species Menu
Cocktail Peanuts and Locust
Eating insects isn’t that uncommon, and plenty of cultures indulge in fistfuls of crunchy crickets and grasshoppers on a daily basis. With that in mind, chowing on the pesky locust should be a breeze. After all, you are doing the world a favor as swarms of them can devastate 500 square miles of crops in one day. They can also travel far, and have been known to start in Africa and end up in India, eating up the food supplies along the way. “Locusts threaten the food security of almost a tenth of the human population of the planet,” says Lai, adding that they are highly nutritious, so perfect for eating. With that in mind, he mixes the insects with peanuts, seasons them with spicy honey teriyaki and bakes them in the oven. The result? A perfect sweet and crunchy snack.
Vietnamese Earthworm Fritters
It may surprise you to realize earthworms are an invasive species. After all, who doesn’t remember their parents encouraging them to put the squiggly creatures in the dirt to help plants grow? Turns out these slimy buggers are a global problem hailing from European settlers who were working to reproduce their farms abroad. While the worms might have helped the gardens of England, in other places they can drastically change the biodiversity of the forests, which makes the woods vulnerable. So next time, dig up a few of these protein-filled invertebrate and have them for dinner. “To make earthworms edible, one must clean their digestive system by squeezing the dirt out as you would do to prepare sausage casings,” says Lai. “Afterward, each worm is butterflied, rinsed out and chopped.” To spice it up, Lai combines the “meat” with ginger, scallions, hot peppers, orange peel and lemon grass and deep fries them. In the end, Lai says, “The mouthfeel of the worms in this dish is actually pleasantly familiar, like ground meat.”
The lionfish is one of the most famous invasive species, namely because it’s as beautiful as it is destructive. Originally from the (Asian) Pacific Ocean, this striped sea creature came to the West Coast and the Caribbean by way of the pet trade. “They procreated quickly and are so voracious, they can quickly wipe out a population of fish along the reef,” says Lai. “The main problem with them is that they are poisonous, so nothing can eat them.” That is, save for humans, who can strip the lovely fish of its poisoned barbs and, in in Lai’s case, slice the fish raw and serve it diners at his restaurant.
Burmese Python Stir-Fry
The giant Burmese Python is another product of the pet trade, and one that’s a big problem for the Everglades in Florida. Because of escaped specimens and pythons that irresponsible owners have released into the wild, this snake has been eradicating the rabbit and raccoon population. This in turn allows some species of plants to thrive, and limits the food supply of animals who are meant to be in this area. “They are affecting biodiversity, though it’s hard to measure because we don’t know what the domino effects it has had is,” says Lai. “This is an animal that doesn’t have other animals that eat it, save for the occasional alligator.” In order to help cull the population, Lai has cooked the 20-foot snake with garlic chives, ginger, roasted sesame oil and black bean sauce. “When you are making python you have to be careful to cut it paper-thin and sauté it in high heat,” suggests the chef, who said it has a texture similar to squid. “Wok cooking is good for it and it’s delicious.”
This post is brought to you by our friends at Whole Foods Market
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