The solution to California’s rampant sea urchin problem is to eat them. I gave it a try

“Babe! I sprayed mouth everywhere!”

I never thought I’d find myself screaming these words on a tranquil Sunday morning in my tiny San Francisco kitchen. Then again, I never thought I’d find myself staring at a sink full of spiky, purple aliens with a knife murderously clutched in one hand, the ethereal voice of Phoebe Bridgers softly crooning in the background.

But these vibrant little aliens – purple sea urchins, in actuality – have become a major headache for the Pacific west coast. Their population has exploded by 10,000% since 2014, with scientists blaming the decline of sea otter and starfish populations – two of the urchin’s natural predators.

Hundreds of millions of purple sea urchins now blanket the coast from Baja to Alaska, where they have been devouring the region’s vital kelp forests, doing untold damage to the marine ecosystem in the process. In California, it is estimated that 95% of the kelp forests, which serve as both shelter and food to a wide range of marine life, has been decimated and replaced by so-called “urchin barrens” – vast carpets of spiked purple orbs along the ocean floor.

That’s why marine biologists and chefs have teamed up to release a new predator into their natural environment: me.

Or, to be exact, me and all of you. There’s been a push for years to get the public to eat more sea urchin as a way to help curb the population and recover the kelp forests.

It shouldn’t have been a hard sell. Sea urchin, or uni in the sushi world, is considered a delicacy in the fine dining circles. “The two main descriptors I would use are sweet and briny, similar to an oyster, similar to a clam,” said culinary scientist Ali Bouzari. “They taste like the sea because they live in the sea. They’re sweet, umami and a little bit salty. The texture is very creamy. It’s very similar to room-temperature butter.”

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During the pandemic, however, fine dining has been harder to come by. And the retail costs, which range from $9 to $12 per urchin at your local fishmonger, isn’t something every home cook can justify.

But what Bouzari, co-founder of culinary research and development company Pilot R&D, has been pushing for the last few years is that sea urchin cuisine doesn’t have to be particularly precious, or expensive. You can have it served on a half shell, topped with espresso-cream whipped potatoes and caviar – as they do at Michelin-star restaurant SingleThread in Healdsburg – or you can sauté it with some onion, sausage and day-old rice and make a dirty rice, one of Bouzari’s favorite recipes. And anyone with access to the coast can have sea urchin dirty rice on a dirty rice budget.

And this was how I found myself in my kitchen, covered in kelp and purple spines.

Sea urchin harvesting

The day before my exploding mouth episode, I stood on the beach of Timber Cove in Jenner, California, waiting as Bouzari and his friend Justin Ang, a Pilot R&D product manager, paddled up to shore atop some surfboards.

They had spent the morning spearfishing, coming in with some scallops, blue rock fish and a giant ling cod – and of course, sea urchin. A year-long fishing license in California costs $52.66, while my husband and I each paid a $10 fee for “taking anything from the ocean” at Timber Cove.

Bouzari came out of the water dressed like an underwater sea pirate, with weights around his waist like a gun holster and a knife strapped to his calf. But you don’t need a wetsuit or fancy gear to harvest sea urchin, he explained. Anytime at low tide on the edges of a cove, urchin – an intertidal species – should become visible.

Sure enough, within a minute of stepping on to the rocks, I spotted my first sea urchin, stuck to the side of a rock.

Sea urchins are essentially a ball of hard purple spikes containing five egg sacs, which is what we eat – in the culinary world, they’re described as the tongues, the roe, the uni. I call it the yum.

They have no eyes or brain, but they do have mouths, which they use to suck up everything in their way, kelp or otherwise. Bouzari calls them the “Roombas of the ocean”.

The sea urchin came loose when I twisted it like a doorknob. The triumph of my first harvest overtook any lingering sensations of pain from gripping its prickly spines. Still, I’d recommend gloves.

I had brought some salted sourdough toast from San Francisco, and Bouzari quickly scooped a fat, golden tongue out of the hardened purple spikes to lay on to the olive-oiled surface. I had enjoyed uni before at sushi restaurants, but never tasted anything quite like the briny creaminess of sea urchin fresh from the ocean, on toast warmed in the California sun. That one bite felt like a calm summer day, floating on a boat in the water.

Dragon eggs in the kitchen

If saving the kelp forest means eating more urchin, then we ostensibly need to prove that people can not only afford to eat more sea urchin, but prepare sea urchin easily on their own.

Meaning someone like me, the person who infamously vomited in the middle of the newsroom on the first day of her dream internship because she ate undercooked chicken the night before, can harvest these creatures – which resemble evil dragon eggs – and manage to make a delicious, home-cooked meal.

I was concerned about transporting a cooler full of purple sea urchins on the two-hour drive down Highway 1 back to San Francisco, but Bouzari assured me that sea urchin would keep for several days, especially if left in salt water. The best practice is to keep them refrigerated, Bouzari said, with a damp cloth over them. “When it gets old, it starts to smell like ammonia,” he said.

OK, ammonia. I woke up Sunday morning, preparing myself for ammonia, a urine-like smell. What I was not prepared for was the odor of farts. I opened the cooler on Sunday morning and was greeted with a cloud of flatulence. “Vivian!” my husband said, immediately blaming me.

Fart jokes aside, it was Sunday morning and we were hungry. I wanted to continue on a more simplistic, dirty rice trend, and dug up a scrambled egg recipe from Gordon Ramsay. I found a fairly simple sea urchin bruschetta recipe from Robert Irvine before I remembered that I hate cilantro and scallions and don’t own a lemon zester. “So you’re just making toast and sea urchin again?” my husband asked.

Left: After dragging her haul home in a cooler, reporter Vivian Ho removes an urchin’s mouth with precision. Right: Opening the shell reveals the urchin roe. ’I call it the yum,’ Ho says. Photographs: Courtesy Drew Bruton

Back at Timber Cove, Bouzari had shown me how to get the yum out of the shells with the finesse of a man who has done this many times. In my kitchen, I went at the urchin with the grace of a drunk baby elephant that had somehow gotten hold of a knife.

The first move in preparing a sea urchin is to cut out its mouth, which is hard and shell-like. When you have practice doing this like Bouzari, you can swipe it all out in one go. When you’re me, you fling multiple mouths all over your kitchen, multiple times.

The next move is to empty the water. At the beach, we emptied the water into the ocean and then washed it again in the waves. At home, I ran tap water into the hole where the mouth was, cleaning out any sand and sediment.

Bouzari showed me a move where he cut the urchin in half elegantly so that you could use the shell as a bowl or a candle holder after removing the roe. I had not mastered that. Instead, I cut the urchin jagged down the middle, at times just using my hands to rip it apart, sending spines flying on to the floor and into my sink.

Bouzari used a knife to detach the digestive tracts at each point. It was very clean and streamlined and from there, he rinsed out the shell once more and all that was left was the roe, waiting to be spooned out.

In my kitchen, my two halves of shell looked completely different – more like two handfuls of crumpled spikes, kelp and roe oozing together. I couldn’t find the points to detach the digestive tracts, so I ended up just scooping everything out and washing the roe free of the kelp. Bouzari made sure to tell me that eating the digested kelp wouldn’t hurt anybody – it just doesn’t taste very good.

It took me two hours to collect enough yum for five small crostini and to make six scrambled eggs. It felt like I did a lot of work for very little output.

Bouzari had warned this could happen with some of the purple sea urchins. Though they’re plentiful, some are not growing large enough to be commercially viable. Companies like Urchinomics have begun collecting the purple sea urchins and then fattening them up for high-end sushi restaurants.

Left: Vivian Ho’s purple sea urchin butter noodles. Right: Sea urchin scrambled eggs with crostini.

But even the worst chefs can make butter noodles, and for that reason I chose to freestyle the dish, without a recipe, for my last urchin attempt.

I prepared spaghetti noodles, and then made a simple sauce out of olive oil, butter, garlic, lemon and pasta water. I sprinkled in some oregano, basil, chili flakes and sea salt before taking it off the heat and stirring in the urchin paste I made by taking the collected roe and mixing it together. I tossed the spaghetti in the sauce and laid two tongues on top of each bowl.

I wasn’t expecting much. The fart smell from the cooler (which Bouzari later assured me was nothing to worry about) still lingered, even though we’d opened every window in our apartment, and I stepped on a piece of mouth while I was tossing the pasta. But these noodles were creamy and buttery with hints of ocean. Each bite bit back with brine and lemon brightness.

For someone who had been told her entire life that she could not cook and should not cook, for the gastrointestinal safety of herself and others, this dish felt life-changing. It felt like a shining beacon into a tastier world, a victory for the culinary-challenged everywhere.

My husband said it was pretty good.

Smelly, frustrating, messy and … fun

Even amid the fart smell, I had begun to have fun. At times it got frustrating, when all I managed to spoon out was a thin sliver after minutes of painstakingly picking through clingy kelp. But those moments always faded with the incredible bubbling satisfaction of scooping out that one fat, picture-perfect golden tongue.

I’m the type of eater who loves to work for my food, getting my fingers dirty, sauce all over my face, as I gnaw the meat off the bones. Some people don’t. But for those who do, I can see how fun an afternoon of shore-picking sea urchins and eating them over toast on the beach could be, especially when it comes with the feeling that you’ve done something good.

“This is the rare opportunity for our gluttonous instincts to have a redemption arc,” Bouzari said. “This is something where there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions more of these purple urchins than there should be. Go for it. You could harvest literally more than you could eat and honestly harvesting more than you can eat it is the responsible thing you can do. Just get them out of the water.”

What I learned about eating urchins is that you really can’t ruin something that’s intended to be eaten raw. Plus, if you have to break a few dragon eggs to make an omelet, that’s sort of the point. Getting urchins out of the ocean is the goal, so break as many dragon eggs as you want.

After a day and half of eating urchin, my husband asked that we not have them for a while. As for me, I’m already planning my next batch of butter noodles.