Sea urchins, those spiny, round little guys moving slowly across the rocks and coral at the bottom of the ocean, are actually a delicacy in many parts of the world. Uni may be an acquired taste, but has many health benefits, and is even considered an aphrodisiac. We’re taking a look at what makes the hedgehog of the sea so unique and sought after.
Sea urchins can be found in all of the world’s oceans, but are difficult to harvest, and the small portions of edible meat inside are especially delicate. Though typically called sea urchin roe, uni is actually the sex organ that produces roe, sometimes referred to as the gonads or corals. Five strips or “tongues” of uni live within the structure of an urchin. They are usually orange or yellowish, and do resemble tongues, with the consistency of a firm custard.
Because sea urchins require intense labor to harvest and meticulous cleaning, they can be quite pricey. They are almost always sold fresh, and can be difficult to find outside of a sushi restaurant or Asian grocer. Fresh uni should be brightly colored, firm, and not excessively leaking any liquids
Uni is one of the few remaining delicacies that are harvested from the wild, and are almost always hand-cut by professional scuba divers. In some parts of Korea, though, this feat is tackled by women, who train their whole lives to dive in cold water and hold their breath for long periods of time. Armed with only a mask and a knife, the “sea women” or haenyo dive as deep as 50 feet with no other gear to gather urchins, abalone, seaweed and conch to sell and help support their families.
Most uni is consumed as sushi, a specialty in Japan. As Japanese waters became overfished, a small North American sea urchin industry took of in the 1980s, and now almost all of the uni purchased in the states originates from the coast of California.
Traditionally a Japanese delicacy, uni is still considered there to be an aphrodisiac. It has a strong ocean smell, and is thick, creamy, rich, and buttery in texture. The taste is described as briny, and can vary depending on the region it was harvested, its freshness and even its gender. Its richness and strangeness is typically either enthusiastically admired or completely loathed. Though usually delicately draped on top of sushi, uni can also be used in sauces, spread like butter, used in pastas or on rice, or treated in any number of ways by culinary greats.
You may love it or you could totally hate it, but if you have never tried uni, we encourage you to do so. Seek out a great sushi joint, and chat up the sushi chef about the freshness of his urchin and where it comes from. Uni, the strange insides of the prickly sea creature, is unique, unexpected, and incredible.