Proponents laud its flavor as akin to a briny, extra-rich egg yolk or a sweeter, less seawatery oyster, while its detractors argue it tastes more like metallic chlorine with the texture of Play-Doh. Needless to say, this is an extremely polarizing food.
What it looks like:
While the whole sea urchin, undisturbed, looks like a lethal black, red, or green Koosh-ball, what you’ll see on your plate are usually the gonads alone: yellow-orange tongues built out of microscopic eggs.
How it’s served:
- Plain or lightly marinated, folded over on itself like thick cream, over rice wrapped in seaweed, at most sushi bars. I recommend Ikko (in Costa Mesa), whose sushi is otherwise uninspiring; perhaps they pour all their available love into their urchins, which come out miles ahead of any local competition. Ohshima (in Orange) or Nana San (in Newport Beach) are better all-around sushi bars, whose chefs serve their expertly marinated uni nigiri as an integral part of a whole stunning omakase experience.
- Mixed with cream, butter, various herbs, and often other types of fish roe, and tossed with pasta at various Japanese or Italian restaurants. I recommend Café Hiro (in Cypress), which manages to get every single strand thickly coated with rich orange seawatery goodness.
- Alive, with spikes twitching unsettlingly, creeping away from you at the glacial rate of an inch per minute, on paper plates at live seafood bars like Quality Seafood in Redondo Beach. Make sure that the spiky shell is cracked only after you select your specimen: the point of getting urchins this fresh is that their taste changes subtly after only a few minutes outside their shells.
- Forming the flowered centerpiece of stunningly beautiful chirashi bowls at Maruhide Uni Club in Torrance. This blooming, rich confluence of custard, sea vegetables, and rice must be tasted to be believed.
- Marinated in kombu-shoyu and served as an appetizer on Japan Airlines - but you have to upgrade to first class to get a taste!
Three reasons you should try it:
1. Sea urchins eat kelp. Kelp forms a protective forest for delicate seafloor life and also slows beach erosion. Save the ocean; dine on urchin!
2. Sea urchin is a diet-cheater’s dream. It somehow has fewer calories than fish like salmon and mackerel while having essentially the same richness experience as heavy cream. It’s also full of omega-3 fatty acids. Butter not allowed? Urchin on toast!
3. If you’re going to eat a live sea creature, better that it isn’t sannakji! Sannakji, Korean-style live baby octopus chopped into pieces and served still wriggling, will grasp and hold fast to the inside of your throat in their tentacly death throes. They can quite literally choke a person to death doing this. Sea urchins, conversely, will just attempt to escape your plate slowly and directionlessly.
Who on earth discovered that eating orange slime out of an impenetrable spike forest was a delicacy??