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What's the Deal With... Sea Urchin?

August 22, 2014

What's the Deal With... Sea Urchin?

August 22, 2014

You know that thing? That thing that’s everywhere, and it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo: StockFood/Greg Rannells

OK, so anything covered in black, sharp-as-knife spikes that can cause inexplicable pain if stepped on may not sound like something you’re dying to eat for dinner. But the sea urchin has overcome its reputation for ruining a perfectly good snorkel trip and made its way on to more and more restaurant menus, usually under its Japanese name, uni.

To get the scoop on the increasing allure of urchin and how to take the plunge into preparing it yourself, we talked to Brian Colgate, president and operations director of Santa Barbara Fish Market, Inc. in Santa Barbara, California, which supplies local sea urchins to wholesale suppliers, fish markets, and chefs.

What It Tastes Like: Uni “roe” is often described as tasting like the sea without being fishy, a similar experience to eating caviar or briny oysters. Colgate describes urchin as having a “creamy ocean, slightly sweet flavor” but notes that the animal’s diet—an urchin’s gotta eat—can make a difference, too. Though all sea urchins feast on kelp, if you’ve ended up with one who happened to snack on a bitter batch, he could have a slightly bitter flavor too. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of sea urchin is its texture; that creamy, custard-like feel is heavenly to some and downright gross to others. 

What You’re Actually Eating: The, er, interesting news is that the silky smooth part you’ll be eating (that’s often a gorgeous peachy-orange hue) are actually the sea creature’s gonads. Colgate sends his fishing boats out primarily to catch red urchin, the species that’s most prevalent up and down the West Coast. There are other varieties on the East Coast and other parts of the world, but thankfully, the feisty ones with a penchant for stingingare usually found in the tropics (and not often fished for consumption).

How You’ll See It Prepared: While uni was once a delicacy rarely found on menus outside the confines of Japanese sushi bars, the urchin has broken down international culinary barriers: You’ll see uni avocado toastuni and burrata with mushroom, and even duck egg spaghetti with uni and guanciale. Colgate adds that he’s seen a notable increase in uni sales to fish markets, restaurants, and individuals in recent years. “People want more of a food experience and chefs are seeing the demand for that and are offering a variety of things that, in the past, they might have shied away from,” he says. “Plus, it’s just an amazingly tasty food.” (And, good news: Those scary spikes you see in this photo will likely be long gone by the time sea urchin makes it to your plate.)

Its Unexpected Bonus:"I notice personally from eating it that itgives you an energy aura," explains Colgate. "Not as intense as an espresso, but almost like a wheatgrass shot." Indeed, the almighty uni is rich in vitamin C and vitamin A and is a good source of protein. (It’s also known to be an aphrodisiac, but that’s another story…)

What to Look For: If youre cooking it at home and want to stay away from those spikes, some fish markets offer trays of just the roe,dipped in a salt-water solution that helps it stay fresh for several days. Similarly, many fishmongers will split and clean live urchins for you, sending you home with just the fresh roe (which Colgate suggests eating within a few hours). When shopping for the already-shelled stuff, “Look at the texture and shy away from anything that looks mushy or slimy,” recommends Colgate (advice to heed when dealing with most types of seafood, really). Strips of roe should look defined and you should be able to see the delineation between pieces, rather than one big soggy pile.

How to Cook It: Fancy yourself a bit more advanced? Buy live urchins whole and crack them open at home, a process that involves poking the urchin in the underside with a knife or pair of shears, then cutting the shell, breaking it open, draining it, and slicing out the roe (which you can then serve out of the spiky shell, a guest-impressor if there ever was one).

If this is your first uni rodeo, Colgate suggests keeping it simple: Buy just the roe and do as he does when out on his boat – down it raw with a little ponzu sauce and some fresh minced fresh green onion. If you’d rather ease yourself into the world of uni with a dish you’re familiar with, then try this lovely linguine recipe and consider yourself hooked.